Several months ago, we announced that we hired James Gould ’15 and Sarah Diem ’15 as Interns under the SSDP Just Say Know Peer Education program. James and Sarah are tailoring our Just Say Know resources, which are targeted toward college-age students, for a younger demographic and presenting it to 8th and 11th grade students at a Denver public school.
SSDP’s Just Say Know drug education program takes a harm reduction approach to drugs, rather than the traditional abstinence only model of programs focusing on “Just Say No” rhetoric, such as D.A.R.E. The reality is many students consume substances, and telling them not to has been unsuccessful at changing this behavior.
We started this program after being approached by partners at Impact-360, a mentorship program serving students at the school in Denver. Due to the identified needs of the school, they requested we start by covering cannabis and alcohol. James and Sarah will also be presenting a third module, to be determined with the help of students depending on what they want and need to learn. James and Sarah will cover general knowledge about drugs and harm reduction throughout the program, and will be available as mentors to any student with specific questions or in need of guidance outside of the general program.
This post will be the beginning of a blog series covering their progress.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: James Gould
The school has split the 8th grade into four groups that we will be cycling through every two weeks. We have finished several rounds of sessions with 8th graders, and we are also starting sessions for 11th graders.
In our first round of lessons we introduced the program, asked the students what they hope to learn, and covered the concept of harm reduction. We explained to the students that harm reduction, as it applies to drug use, acknowledges that some people will use drugs despite the possible associated risks. We’ve been introducing this concept to the students, who have mostly only received “Just Say No”-esque messaging about drugs. Many of the 8th grade students responded in the initial lesson that they feel learning about drugs is unnecessary because they’ll never use drugs. We recognize that for many students these opinions may quickly change in high school, so we want to present them with information to help make informed decisions later on.
We also gathered student feedback on what they would like to get out of the program. Students’ knowledge about drugs ranges from those who know next to nothing about drugs, to students who claim to know everything there is to know about drugs. Questions ranged from “why are drugs bad?” to “how do drugs work?” to “is cannabis harmful?” We’re looking forward to answering these questions during future sessions, and will keep you updated as time goes on!
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Sarah Diem
As James mentioned above, we’ve been working with four groups of 8th graders and two groups of 11th graders at West Leadership Academy this year. My initial impressions have been great and have led me to even more excitement than I started with!
Like most mid-size to large groups of young people, their attention and interest has varied. Some groups of students have listened attentively, filled out question responses promptly, and remained engaged throughout. Other groups were more distracted, feeling they were learning material they already knew or assuming we were there to lecture them. It seems no matter how much James and I emphasize we are there to empower students instead of shame them, the zero-tolerance culture around discussing drug use still leads to skepticism among students.
8th grade students seem curious about information those of us who are more experienced in drug policy may consider basic – why do people do drugs, what do drugs do to your brain, why are drugs illegal, etc. I really appreciate these students bringing me to a place where I need to take a step back and realize just how complex the answers to these questions really are (if we even have them). It’s easy for us to consider perspectives of the reform movement to be “no-brainers”, but I don’t think it would be a stretch to assume many people of all ages just haven’t thought about the answers to those outside of the typical narrative. I’m often reminded that sometimes it takes a new voice to help illuminate important concepts and that’s what I hope we do for these students.
We’re about to dive into the 11th grade sessions and I can’t wait to see what they want to get out of the program! I expect these responses to look considerably different from the 8th graders, especially given the vastly different social contexts you find yourself in at 16 years old compared to 13 years old.