By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — The week of Oct. 20-24 was a wacky one in the Niskayuna School District. Teachers wore their pajamas to school, students wore their shirts backward or styled their hair like Dr. Seuss characters, and at the high school kids were applauded for posting silly pictures to social media during school hours.
The activities were silly, but their purpose was serious. For the first time, every school in the district observed Red Ribbon Week, a national campaign meant to teach kids healthy habits and prevent drug use, at the same time.
The message was tailored for each age group, but the theme was consistent, all drawing attention to this year’s slogan: “Love yourself, be drug free.”
“It’s about leading a healthy lifestyle,” said Allison Nunez, one of two social workers for the school district. She and Jessica Brennan, the other social worker, collaborated to plan the week’s events.
Nunez joined the district last year after leaving a similar position at a suburban district near Rochester. She loved celebrating Red Ribbon Week there and was inspired to deliver its health-positive message to Niskayuna students of all ages.
Kristin Sweeter, grant manager for the Niskayuna Community Action Program, said there was a need for an awareness program like Red Ribbon Week in the Niskayuna community. The organization helped fund and advertise this year’s weeklong programming.
Mirroring the nation
N-CAP recently administered a Prevention Needs Assessment, a survey of students in the district meant to collect information about their health and happiness. Sweeter is sworn to secrecy about the numbers until their official release Dec. 2, but she was able to describe some general trends.
“We’re pretty much in the same place that our country is,” she said, identifying underage drinking and marijuana use as the two biggest problems to address among Niskayuna teens.
Sweeter noted that, with marijuana becoming legal for medical and recreational purposes in parts of the country, preventing its use by youths here is becoming tougher. But adults still have to try.
“Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s safe,” she said.
Despite her convictions about drug and alcohol use, Sweeter said she recognizes that black-and-white messages about refusing temptation usually don’t work on teens.
“As soon as I start talking about it they turn me off,” she said. So instead, she tries to delay the onset of use to protect young, developing brains. Red Ribbon Week, she said, is an effective way to achieve that.
“At the high school age, it’s almost a declaration of independence,” Sweeter said. “That’s very powerful.”
At the high school level, a club called Students Advocating a Positive Environment led the Red Ribbon Week charge. SAPE members sat at a table during each lunch period and invited classmates to sign drug-free pledges, which they then hung in the front hallway. So many people wanted to participate that they ran out of pledge forms on the second day.
Students also showed their solidarity with the cause by posting pictures of themselves, or “selfies,” on social media with the hashtag #ProtectUrSelfie. This part of the campaign was inspired by a national movement led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and students had quite a lot of fun with it.
“The people that did choose to do it, they believed in it,” senior and SAPE board member Bianca Siocchetti said. “You don’t have to abide by stereotypes of going to parties every weekend.”
Not forcing it
Several students in the club agreed that the pledge was meaningful only if students made a personal choice to participate.
“We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable,” junior Carter Garfinkel said.
Sophomore Lauren Gabriel agreed that their peers needed to come to their own conclusions about the pledge.
“If you force it on them, they might pull away,” she said.
Setting an example seemed to work much better. Throughout the week, the club’s members say they saw more and more red ribbons pinned to clothing in solidarity.
“It was cool walking by people and seeing the ribbons,” sophomore Danielle Harrington said.
Naturally, drug and alcohol awareness programs like Red Ribbon Week tend to focus on teens, who are at a statistically greater risk for using substances. But the festivities reached all the way down to kindergarten, with a more age-appropriate message intended to lay a foundation for health education in the future.
“We talk about how to be a friend,” Nunez said.
Other topics include making general healthy choices and only taking medication provided by trusted people like parents and doctors. The message is lightened by theme days like “Turn your back on unhealthy choices” day, when kids were encouraged to wear their shirts backward, or “Put a cap on drugs” day, when students wore crazy hats or styled their hair in wild ways.
Sweeter said the theme days provided an entry point into tougher discussions.
“We talk a lot about that message of prevention,” she said.
Keeping door open
Of course, conscientious kids like the members of SAPE are on board with Red Ribbon Week’s message. Reaching the more reluctant students, who might view parties as an important part of everyday social life, is a different story, and it’s hard to know if the message has been heard.
“How can you ever make sure?” Nunez asked. “A lot of it is just keeping an open door.”
She said the community focus of Red Ribbon Week is the secret ingredient to success. This is where that elementary focus on being a friend comes in. Sometimes those who need help don’t realize it, or are too afraid to ask, and someone else has to step up.
“It might not be that person. It could be that person’s friend; it could be that person’s classmate,” Nunez said. “We have to connect.”
The awareness week is supposed to help show students the pathways they can use if they want to seek assistance for themselves or someone they care about.
“It’s about giving them choices and education,” she added. “That can sound very simple, but it can be very powerful.”