South Hadley coalition celebrates its crusade against substance abuse

  • The South Hadley Drug & Alcohol Prevention Coalition met for its “Future Directions Retreat” to talk about the trends of youth substance abuse. Speaking is Angela Lebel, a member of the South Hadley High School Peer Leaders. DAVID MCLELLAN

For the Gazette
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

SOUTH HADLEY — South Hadley is a safer place for youth today than a dozen years ago thanks to the efforts a coalition of students, parents and professionals who have been on a crusade to curb substance abuse.

Whether it’s tobacco, alcohol or drugs, the South Hadley Drug & Alcohol Prevention Coalition has accomplished plenty in the past 12 years.

On Tuesday, they celebrated those accomplishments at a “Future Directions Retreat” at Mount Holyoke College’s Willits-Hallowell Conference Center. The retreat included a dinner and a series of presentations on the group’s tactics, and the results of those tactics.

In attendance were representatives of different Coalition groups, including the South Hadley High School Peer Leaders, the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth (SPIFFY), local and state politicians, including members of the South Hadley Select Board and state Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, South Hadley police, teachers and many others. About 50 people filled the room to hear the talks, many which students gave.

“In South Hadley, you have to be 21 to buy tobacco products, and you can’t buy any of those more than 8,000 flavored products that big tobacco has developed to get kids interested,” said Reuel Colon, a freshman at South Hadley High who has been a Peer Leader since fifth grade. Peer leaders are students who, among other things, encourage healthy habits.

Colon, in his position as a Peer Leader, has helped the coalition with its mission to curtail smoking among teens. He’s helped by asking students to sign no-smoking pledges, handing out informational materials about the dangers of smoking and giving advice to those who want to talk to a friend or family member about smoking.

One of the coalition’s biggest anti-smoking activities, though, was using grant money to research flavored tobacco products and the ways the products are marketed towards young people, and getting the Board of Health to ban the products in town.

The coalition, Colon said, has also been working with Scibak for years, in a partnership that has seen Scibak sign on as a co-sponsor of the Tobacco 21 bill that would make 21 the required age to buy tobacco products in all of Massachusetts.

“And, at Kick Butts Day, we go down to have a rally and march across Boston, carrying signs and chanting about how big tobacco has to stop targeting kids,” Colon said.

The coalition and its student Peer Leaders haven’t solely focused on tobacco, however. They have also fought to decrease alcohol and drug use among students.

One example is the Safe Homes Directory available to parents and students, which is a list of houses that are supervised by adults who ensure that young people will not drink or do drugs while they are at them.

According to Angela Lebel, a senior at South Hadley High who has been a Peer Leader for several years, the Safe Homes Directory is particularly useful around prom season, when parents want to be sure the house their children are going to is drug-free.

“Having a lot of families in that booklet shows other families in South Hadley that they are not the only ones setting rules up to keep kids safe. Nobody likes to feel like they are the only one,” Lebel said.

The Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) program, backed by the coalition and Peer Leaders groups, has seen the nursing staff and counselors at the South Hadley High get training on dealing with addiction. They’ve been conducting tests and tracking data since 2015 through the program, asking students in three grades — eighth, 10th and 12th — about their experiences with drugs.

The SBIRT data revealed at the Future Directions Retreat showed that drug and alcohol abuse, and the factors that contribute to them, have decreased in almost all cases, and that positive environmental factors that help youth stay away from substance abuse have increased in almost all cases.

When students were asked about the existence of “Individual belief in moral order” and “Opportunities for pro-social involvement,” both categories in the SBIRT tests, over the course of the last four years, their affirmative answers have increased, according to Heather Warner who presented the data, the Coalition Coordinator for SPIFFY.

In categories like the “perceived availability of drugs,” students indicated that drugs are less common, Warner said.