Area youth get tips on prevention, leadership at DA conference

  • Jane Biagi, working with the MIAA, talks the perils of sexting with a group of middle schoolers at a conference to develop leadership skills, hosted by the District Attorney's office. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon—

  • Hannah Warnock, right, an eighth-grader at Montague-Great Falls Middle School, participates in a role-play activity with another student to help middle schoolers develop leadership skills at a conference Tuesday hosted by the district attorney's office at Greenfield Community College.. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

For the Gazette
Tuesday, October 17, 2017

GREENFIELD — Part of the work of Northwestern district attorney’s office is prosecution. Another part, especially in its battle with the opioid epidemic, is treatment.

But what students from eight middle schools from Turners Falls to South Hadley heard from District Attorney David Sullivan and his team on Tuesday was all about prevention.

“People need treatment, but the thing better than treatment is prevention,” said Laurie Loisel, director of community outreach and education at the district attorney’s office.

As Loisel spoke about the value of the sixth annual youth conference, hosted by Greenfield Community College, nearly 100 middle schoolers were learning about more than just the risks of drug use at a young age.

“The idea is to help kids build leadership skills and refusal skills so that they can make healthy choices,” Loisel said.

The conversations weaved through issues of the culture around drugs and alcohol.

Jake Gallant, a teacher at Northampton’s John F. Kennedy Middle School, brought a handful of students from the school’s gay-straight alliance and students of color alliance.

He said he wished the conversation was not a blanket one about drugs, noting that there could have been more refined language to distinguish between drugs that are always illegal, like heroin, and drugs that become legal at a certain age, like alcohol and now, marijuana.

His students did take away a few lessons, nonetheless.

“We’ve been learning a lot about how to be a leader and what makes a good reputation and a good efficient leader,” Colbey Pirrone, 13, said.

Her classmate Krista Jordan, 13, added that she learned “how to make a right decision in our lives even when that’s a difficult decision. ... Even adults don’t do this. It’s really OK to ask for help, even if you’re the leader.”

Similarly, students from the social justice club at Frontier Regional Middle School in South Deerfield took away advice on a host of leadership skills, including some ideas for an action plan on how to take what they learned Tuesday and bring it back to their classmates.

“We want to make it more special than boring school work that’s usual and boring presentations,” Harry Levine, 14, said. “We want to make it something more involved for our age group, make kids want to learn more about this.”

The students said they enjoyed the interactive element to this conference. They also noted that it reinforced their ideas that it’s important to delay first use of a substance, like marijuana.

“It’s not legal for kids. They may not understand that,” Levine said. “Like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, by a certain age you have the right to do that, but you should be educated about that.”

“And even though it’s legal, it doesn’t mean it’s recommended,” added Sadie Ross, 12, from Frontier.

Students from Great Falls Middle School in Montague recognized how what they learned at GCC applies to some of the problems they see with drug use among their peers.

“It was an eye opener because most people at our school ignore the fact that this is going on,” Emily Young, 13, said. “We need to take this back to school and help.”

Classmate Abigail Sanders, 14, suggested bringing a presentation back to school to teach people how to become a leader.

“It’s an issue, but people see it as a joke,” Willa Beltrandi, 13, said. “They don’t do anything about it and laugh it off.”

Keira Stevens, 12, said people need to know it’s a serious thing. Maddie LeBorgne, 12, said it’s important to teach people that if they don’t stop using an illegal substance at a young age, something bad can happen.

“In the future, whether you’re going to Turners Falls or any other high school, you’ll run into drugs and alcohol, but there are things that you can do,” Young said.