Washougal schools are making major efforts with substance use prevention in their middle schools as leaders recognize that making healthy choices are not always easy, regardless of age. But those decisions become more challenging and complicated for middle school aged youth who are trying to find independence, define themselves, as well as fit in.
Leading efforts in the Washougal School District for both Jemtegaard and Canyon Creek Middle School to empower students to make healthy choices and have their voices heard is Wendy Butler, Student Assistance Professional for Prevention and Intervention from Educational Service District 112. She works in close partnership with school principals, associate principals, school counselors, social workers and secretaries, Unite! Washougal Community Coalition and more.
Butler is a part of the statewide Student Assistance Prevention-Intervention Services Program (SAPISP), administered by ESD 112 in selected Clark, Skamania, Wahkiakum, Cowlitz and Klickitat county middle and high schools. Tamara Crites is the specialist at Washougal High School.
SAPISP is a comprehensive, integrated model of services that focuses on substance-use prevention and other supports. The program places Student Assistance Professionals in schools to foster safe school environments, promote health and prevent alcohol, tobacco, and other drug abuse.
“One of the exciting things about prevention efforts with middle school-aged students is that it feeds up and feeds down,” Butler explained. “This means they can still remember themselves before they may have hit a bump in the road. They can still feel the positive effects of good choices they made when they were younger. And we get to provide opportunities for them to look forward toward their goals and help empower them to get there. “
Butler approaches the middle schools’ overall prevention program in three components: universal prevention, which are big picture projects; small group conversations; and relationships with individual students.
“Universal prevention activities at both JMS and CCMS have so many fun pieces to them,” she said. “They involve large groups and at times the entire school community.”
Examples include Red Ribbon Week, special guest speakers like Madison Langer from Tobacco Free Kids who shared straight talk about her journey in to and out of drug use, the Youth to Youth club that meets after school and at lunchtimes to work on prevention initiatives; and Real Talk, an interactive video presentation on facts about vaping that led to lively class discussions.
One of the newest projects is Courtyard Connections which takes place at the JMS courtyard at lunchtime. It began as an idea out of JMS music teacher, Dr. Snapp’s guitar class. “Music and playing guitars are such a great way to make connections,” said Butler. “When we started, I thought each student would take turns, but no! Everyone plays at the same time in their own area. Other students come out and will sit and listen. Some will ask if they can try playing and others will share.”
“There are so many smiles,” she added. “It is happening so organically. Students who participate are feeling valued and know this is a safe place to try new things.”
Sports activities: Substance Abuse Prevention
Sports activities are also important for students to access. They teach life and interpersonal skills and keep students involved and engaged doing something fun that is linked to the school. Butler enjoys leading clinics for both basketball and volleyball and hosts open gym for students to play and shoot hoops.
Butler stresses that the best prevention is becoming involved in something a person likes to do that is healthy. “Students are encouraged to explore a variety of interests and then we figure out how to help them try it,” she said.
A significant challenge for students can be the transition from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school. It can be scary and overwhelming for students who are unsure how they will fit in. The Welcome Wagon and Bridges to Success programs help relieve fears and give students confidence to take their next step in education.
“Welcome Wagon features positive and supportive notes from middle school students to fifth graders to help introduce them to their new school,” said Butler. “We will also create banners to put outside of each 5th grade classroom with welcoming messages from the middle schools.”
Similarly, the Bridges to Success program invites high school students to sit down and talk with 8th graders. “Students prepare questions ahead of time for the high school students to address,” Butler said. “The messages from these older students are amazing and comforting to the younger kids. Two years ago, a student gave some great advice and talk passionately about not having to change who he was when he came to high school. He encouraged students to keep doing things their own way and get involved with others with similar interests. He said if they stay true to who they are and try to get along with others, they will find positive ways to fit in.”
A second component to substance use prevention is gathering with small groups of students that have similar concerns, interests and goals based on a survey at the beginning of the year. Topics include discussions around self-empowerment, being new to the school, or taking a stand against alcohol/drug use.
“Our groups meet once a week,” Butler said. “We are trying to remove barriers for students in order for them to feel supported and get what they need for themselves or others so they can focus on school.”
The third component in substance use prevention is being available to meet with students one on one. “Students are welcome to knock on my door any time,” Butler explained. “They might be struggling with an issue, or want to learn how to help a friend, or maybe they are looking for the truth about something they heard. For instance, there is an idea that ‘everybody’ is vaping or that it is ‘safe,’ and that is just wrong! I am happy to discuss the facts with them.” For Butler, it all comes down to offering trust, respect and a safe place for students to talk.
“At some point most students will be faced with a decision whether or not to take part in something which they understand is not a healthy choice,” Butler said. “We know that if they have a plan ahead of time for what they will say or do, they are more apt to avoid doing something they do not want to.”
A strong message Butler sends to students is that decisions today will affect the choices they will have available to them tomorrow. “They tell me they do not want adults to control them,” she said. “But look at the control that nicotine can have over someone. It will their money, it will demand their time and it will reduce their health.”
“I ask them to please listen to what I say, and you are welcome to throw it all away or perhaps keep a piece of what you heard,” she said. “You never know when a situation will come that a seed of an idea or knowledge we have shared will come to their mind and help them to make a good choice.”