SHELDON — Telling children what to do, most parents (and children) know, doesn’t always work. When students talk with their peers, though, it appears to have more of an effect.
“A lot of people will listen to the students,” said Sheldon School eighth grader Sam Berry in an interview last week. “Students have [more] impact than the adults.”
For this reason, the oldest students are taking the helm to address youth risk behaviors at Sheldon School. This past fall, seventh and eighth grade leadership students participated in “Getting to the Y,” a program that trains students to analyze results from their school’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior survey (YRBS) and then act on those results.
The students’ efforts, helped along with advisors Joanna Rose and Heather Haddick, led up to a dialogue night last month where students, parents, school staff and community members all discussed root causes and solutions for what might be seen as some disturbing risk behaviors locally.
With improvements in mind, the students will move forward to implement them.
“We care about the community,” said eighth-grader Megan Gaetano. “We have to want a change and we want people to be safe in their surroundings.”
Getting involved &informed
At the beginning of the school year, seventh graders Dillon Rondo and Rhiannon Garey and eighth-graders Gaetano, Berry, Kelby Farnsworth and Callia Snow became involved in the “Getting to the Y” program through Sheldon’s student leadership group and the Vermont Kids Against Tobacco (VKAT).
The six students, along with several others, wanted to go to the early October day-long training in Montpelier in order to help their school community. There they did a number of activities, including comparing Sheldon’s 2013 YRBS data to statewide data. It was a comparison that showed some surprising – good and bad – results.
For instance, in 2013, 93 percent of Sheldon Middle School Students (SMSS) reported wearing seatbelts, 96 percent reported their parents or guardians would think it was wrong for them to smoke cigarettes, and 100 percent reported they never abused prescription drugs.
On the flip side, 51 percent of SMSS reported being in a physical fight (compared to 43 percent statewide), 14 percent of students reported having made a suicide plan, (versus 11 percent statewide), and only 15 percent of students reported being asked by a health care professional whether they smoked or had every smoked (compared to 21 percent statewide).
“It’s a small community so it makes the problems feel bigger,” said Gaetano.
Following the Montpelier training, the student leadership group held a day-long workshop at The Abbey restaurant with Sheldon School’s 57 seventh and eighth graders in order to continue assessing the YRBS results, find the three areas of strength and concern, and talk about some solutions.
According to Garey, just seeing the results had a profound effect on students.
“Some people were blown away,” said Garey.
The above statistics were what students identified as the main ones to emphasize as positive and negative for Sheldon School. Additional items of concern were that 42 percent of SMSS were actively trying to lose weight in 2013, 38 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “in your community you feel like you matter” (as opposed to 54 percent statewide), and 36 percent had ridden in a car with someone smoking cigarettes in the past week (versus 22 percent statewide).
All of these topics were brought to the “Getting to the Y” dialogue night on Nov. 12 to be discussed. About 60 people attended the event, split halfway between students and adults. All sports team members were required to go.
“We started making a game plan,” said Gaetano.
“I think it went pretty well,” said Snow.
One school staff member was particularly affected by the discussion. According to the students, “it was really shocking” for athletic director Chris Fiarkoski to hear how many students were unhappy within the school. He told the leadership ground that he would do whatever he could to help.
“You brought all the different partners together,” Jerose told her leadership students during their interview last week. “They needed to hear from you to learn what the problem was.”
The dialogue night resulted in a number of plans for change, many of which involve increasing communication between students and adults.
The leadership students, for instance, are contacting Franklin County doctors’ offices to ask if they question middle school-age patients about substance use, suicidal thoughts and body image. Jerose is also contacting NCSS to start an annual depression and suicide screening at Sheldon of all students, which will most likely be held in January.
She would also like to see a similar screening for body image and eating disorders.
“That concerned me,” Jerose said of the YRBS results.
The student leadership group is also working on putting together a restorative justice-based program for students who have been involved in physical fights or bullying incidents.
Other things are in the works, like a student suicide prevention hotline, anonymous discussion groups for those facing challenges, and positive student activity nights. According to the leadership students, personalized support is what they want available for anyone struggling in their school community.
“They have people that can help them and get them through their problems,” said Gaetano.
While several action plans are underway, one of the positive takeaways from the discussion night was how effective Sheldon’s health and wellness education program was in discouraging prescription drug abuse.
“We start with them in kindergarten about poisons in medicines,” said Jerose, adding that class continues through eighth grade. “As a school, I definitely think Sheldon does an excellent job [in] the health and wellness information that we give to our students.”
According to the leadership students, they feel the “Getting to the Y” program is another opportunity to educate and help their peers along the rocky road of adolescence. The program is planned to continue into next year and those beyond.
“It’s extremely important for the school,” said Garey. “If we don’t put out that these people are going [these things], it might not stop.”
Stopping youth risk behaviors and ensuring students are happy and healthy is why the leadership students got involved in the first place.
“I know I joined to help form a better community,” said Gaetano.