A Town Council organization’s PR foray against substance abuse: a successful persuasion of the community to make the fight its concern.
An Independent Study
Prof. Susan Grantham
University of Hartford
A Town Council organization’s PR foray against substance abuse: a successful persuasion of the community to make the fight its concern.
The West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission, in Connecticut made a successful public relations foray in 2004-2006 to effectively influence attitudes and persuade parents to firstly recognize and acknowledge that there was a substance abuse problem amongst the youth in the community and then to make the fight against substance abuse their own. The purpose of this study was to examine what principles of public relations were applied in the social marketing of a concept called “ The Community of Concern”, a nationally popular model that facilitated a parent-driven initiative to work toward the creation of an alcohol and drug free environment for their children. The study found the following three principles at play that logically and sequentially led to the successful marketing of the concept:
· The situational theory (J.Gruing & Hunt, 1984) at play - the problem in marketing this concept was identified as ‘parental disinterest’, and the constraint was one of perception- a mix of -parents’ state of denial, a belief that substance use was a ‘rite of passage’ in high school, and an illusion that their children were safe, which reflected in their low level of involvement in seeking information on the subject.
· The social judgment theory (Sherif & Nebergall, 1965), that the situation of ‘low parental involvement in substance abuse issues of the youth’ constituted the parents’ ‘latitude of noncommitment’. This meant that parents did not out right reject the statement that a substance abuse problem existed in the high schools (which was also substantiated by surveys), but were on the fences, and therefore it could be safely predicted that a message of persuasion on the subject would potentially influence perceptions and attitudes, as was intended by the communicator.
· The Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981) that could combine cognitively persuasive (cognitive route) and emotionally moving (peripheral or secondary route) messages for changing parental perceptions and attitudes that the substance abuse problem in the schools was real, was affecting their children directly or indirectly and that the community needed their active attention and involvement.
A parent’s worse nightmare
‘Does every parent’s worse nightmare need to become reality?’ ran the headline of an Op-Ed by Stephen and Ellen Guest, in the February 2006 issue of the West Hartford News, the town’s local newspaper. The poignant editorial, which urged that parents expand their area of considerations to include campus culture and school policies with regard to alcohol, in an already demanding situation of college search for their children, was a lesson that came with a price. The Guests paid the heavy price of losing their twenty-year-old daughter, Kristine, in an alcohol related snowmobile accident, at the Paul Smith College campus in Upstate New York, in February of 2005. Joshua Rau’s (the boy who gave her that fatal ride on the snowmobile) blood alcohol content of .113 was way above the threshold for drunken driving of .08. A negligible amount of alcohol was found in Kristine’s blood.
The confusing question for the Guests was, ‘how could it be our daughter, a student of Quinnipiac University in Southern Connecticut, who had never been to Upstate New York and was never close to a snowmobile?’ The Op-Ed movingly revealed, “ Our family learned this lesson all too painfully on a Sunday morning in February. Local police arrived at our front door with the dreadful message that Kristine died in a snowmobile accident early that morning in Upstate New York while visiting a friend.” It also brought the stark realization that parents’ concern should not only be their child’s campus, but should extend to unknown campuses where some direct or indirect connection may compel a visit. The circumstances surrounding this unfortunate accident had all the possible risks- icy conditions, and poor visibility in the darkness of the night, which was accentuated by the consumption of alcohol, beyond acceptable limits.
In the editorial the Guests acceded that a certain level of responsibility rested with Kristine, but also felt that her demise is a tragic example of an authority’s failure to act, either through indifference, lack of judgment or a desire not to spoil the party. They said it demonstrated the need for colleges and universities to act more responsibly to protect students, albeit recognizing complete oversight is not possible. Stephen and Ellen Guest, residents of West Hartford, Connecticut, since then, have made it their mission to raise awareness of the possible devastating effects of alcohol abuse and to mobilize public opinion for the creation of a safer environment for children in public places and in educational institutions. Their mission also underlines the need for a powerful parental movement to mobilize opinion and resources to influence those in authority and control to make changes that would ensure and facilitate the creation of such a safe environment.
Quantifying the problem in schools
While this out-of-state tragedy was an eye-opener for West Hartford residents (population figure of 68,711, and median household income of $66,843, as of 2005), the town itself has been a witness to alcohol related road tragedies year after year. In spite of the obvious lessons of drunken driving, there has been little impact on reversing the irresponsible behavioral patterns of the youth. The visibly less dramatic effect of drug abuse on young lives, has received even scantier attention. At the age at which they are, adolescents feel invincible and are defiant of authorities regulating their behavior. Peer pressure and at times the compelling flight of escapism from academic and social pressures leads them on a path from which they do not know how to return. On an average day, the responsibilities for the youth in the community (numbering 9025 in the age group of 5-17, as of 2005), is shared by parents, teachers, coaches and administrative staff of the educational institutions they attend, and to some extent their peer group, which is quite knowledgeable about this social malaise, but is unequipped to deal with it. Parents seem less informed about the problem and are also inept at dealing with the subject.
Between 2005 and 2007, the two public high schools, Hall and Conard administered separate surveys to their students (see Appendix A). Conard survey results were not in at the time of writing. The Hall survey revealed that 15 % of the students had used marijuana once or more times in the previous month, about 10% said they had used or were currently using steroids. About 21% of students said that they had been drunk once or more number of times in the previous month, while 20% said that they drank alcohol for the first time in their life between the ages of 11 and 13. More importantly 19% said they drank at home without their parents’ knowledge, while 15% said they drank at home with their parent’s knowledge.
Finally, when asked “how much have your parents talked to you about the dangers of getting drunk?” 10% said not at all, 17% said not much, 32% said some, and 31% said a lot. Apparently only one-third of the parents were seriously involved in broaching the subject with their kids. Even if it may be considered that every student was very forthcoming and these numbers tell the entire story, they speak to the unpleasant truth that there is a substance abuse problem in the community.
The Public Relations challenge
The surveys were done at the behest of the Town Council’s West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission (WHSAPC), which was at the end of the journey it had traversed since October 2003, to bring to the West Hartford community an initiative called the ‘Community of Concern’ (CoC), with the aim of giving the parents a participatory forum to fight against substance abuse. This case study is about that journey from a PR perspective of how the WHSAPC, a town council organization, made that shift in parental perceptions and attitudes possible, by practicing public relations theory and tools in the process.
For the Commission, recognizing the need for a two-pronged strategy of ‘prevention’ and ‘recovery’ measures involving close networking of resources that were available but in a disparate way was not the hard part. The real challenge was kindling a fire in the parental population to commit to fight the disease. They were the ‘latent publics’ (Van Leuven, & Slater, 1991), who did not pay heed for a variety of reasons, of being in denial, accepting it as part of ‘growing up’, fear of social-stigma and for lack of time in a fast-paced society. In part, they felt it only happened to other people’s children and not their own. In the absence of committed parental involvement there was little room for an effective partnership of parents, children, coaches, teachers, school administration, counselors and health experts, who have a shared influence in nurturing healthy youth in society.
The WHSAPC saw a potential in the CoC initiative, an idea that was first brought to their attention in October 2003, of giving the parents a platform to assemble and comfortably dialogue uninhibitedly about substance abuse related issues especially about the available resources for the ‘prevention’ and ‘recovery’ processes of the community’s children. The Commission embraced the idea with a view to fulfill its role of imparting greater vigor and focused direction to the fight against substance abuse in the town of West Hartford. Although the focus on children was only one aspect of the Commission’s broader role of addressing the substance abuse problem of the community, including adults and senior citizens, it was a vital one.
The methodology used for developing this public relations case study in a voluntary organization and finding practical application for the situational theory (J. G ruing & Hunt, 1984), the social judgment theory by Muzafer Sherif, Carolyn Sherif, and their colleagues and for the Elaboration likelihood method developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, is a combination of interviews of the Commission members, attending the Commission meetings and studying the minutes of meetings from September 1989 till April 2007.
Commissioned for a Cause
Seventeen years ago, in 1989, the West Hartford Town Council recognized the need for a representative body of educational, parental, and substance abuse professionals to be formed for the purposes of advising the Council on ways that it may help address the problems of substance abuse in the entire town’s population. Since then the Commission has metamorphosed into a highly committed group of community members, that has made it its mission to continuously dialogue and debate about substance abuse issues and communicate with parents and their children to influence them to make the fight against substance abuse their own. It appears to have moved on beyond its advisory role to an administrative one, and expanded in size from the original fifteen to forty- five members, imparting it with greater fluidity but also with excellent vibrancy.
An ordinance was first passed on September 12, 1989, establishing a permanent substance abuse Commission. It stipulated that, “ The Commission will consist of fifteen members, who shall be appointed by the Town Council. One member shall be appointed to represent the Board of Education; one member shall represent the schools’ parent-teacher organizations; at least two and no more than four members shall be high school students; one member shall be a resident of West Hartford between the ages of 18 and 30; one member shall be a professional in substance abuse counseling and the other seven members shall be electors of the Town of West Hartford. The Town Manager, the Superintendent of Schools, the Director of Human Services, the public and private school Substance Abuse Coordinator, and the Chief of the Police and their designates, shall serve as non-voting, ex-officio members of the Commission.” It further stated that the Commission should make annual recommendations to the Town Council in January of each year. In 1990, the WHSAC also became the local arm of the Capital Area Substance Abuse Council, Inc. (CASAC), when this regional Council was constituted with Local Prevention Councils in 16 towns of Connecticut.
An amendment of the Ordinance was sought by the Town Council in September 2000, with a view to expand its membership representation to include the town’s two active and resourceful social organizations, viz. the Bridge Family Center and Hope Works. The town’s Mayor and the Chair of the West Hartford Board of Education were added to the list of ex officio members of the Commission. It was also rechristened to include the word ‘Prevention’ in its name to read as the West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission (WHSAPC).
In its seventeen year old history, the Commission has discussed the subject extensively at its monthly meetings to examine the issue of substance abuse from all perspectives including those of students with first hand experience of the problem in peer groups. The Commission has identified initiatives annually (see Appendix B, for a sample list of events) to raise awareness and prompt positive steps by members of the community toward substance abuse prevention and for those affected, to agree to seek help and intervention. Tune-In to Life, is a good example of a week-long annual event held in April to promote positive healthy drug-free lifestyles for people of all ages, discourage underage drinking, and raise awareness about drug and alcohol use and abuse. The West Hartford Family Newsletter, published 2-4 times per year, of which 12000 copies are distributed to all parents of school children through the schools and to town organizations and agencies, is a good source of information to educate the community about the ills of underage drinking and promote positive and healthy alternatives to substance abuse.
However, all or most of these resources have existed without the engagement or active involvement of the consumers (parents and their children) of the many interventions and informational programs and literature. This is an important missing piece, considering that the contemporary world is replete with examples of product and corporate brands increasingly communicating and connecting with their audiences by engaging them in a participatory way, whether it is for designing advertisements for the Super Bowl or inviting them to submit their stories, as CNN does with its I-Report (stories submitted by the viewers). For a voluntary body, such as the WHSAPC, with low funds, a strong connection with its audiences can advance its objective of rendering greater power and support to the existing programs and make them better tailored to the needs of their customers.
In the fall of 2003, the Commission was introduced to a concept called ‘Community of Concern’ that would bridge the missing connection with its audiences and completely change the way it would perceive the subject of substance abuse with regard to adolescents. Laurie Maulucci, Executive Director, Greater Hartford Region, of the Community of Concern, in Connecticut, brought the idea to the attention of the Commission. Laurie first helped launch the initiative in 2002, at Kingswood- Oxford, the alma mater of her two sons, now attending college. She was on a mission to take the idea to as many schools across Connecticut as possible.
A Concept of parental partnership
The ‘Community of Concern’ is a national program whose mission is to educate parents and students about the dangers of substance abuse as well as to link school, parents and students to keep students safe. Originating in 1998 at the Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda, Maryland with the publication of a handbook, “ A Parent’s guide for the Prevention of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Use,” Communities of Concern have since taken root in 31 states of the country. The overwhelming positive response to the booklet by the families at Georgetown Prep led Dr. James Power, Headmaster, and Mrs. Mimi Fleury, parent and Chair of the Substance Abuse Manual Committee and former President of the Parent's Board, to form the Community of Concern consortium. Although the only requirement for embracing the CoC initiative is the distribution of the scientifically-oriented booklet that explains the effect of drugs and alcohol on the human brain that is still developing in adolescent years, it offers a point of convergence for parents to seek knowledgeable and influential speakers that can inform and persuade parents and kids to keep the subject alive in the community. It mobilizes parents as well as teenagers to discuss separately and together, ways that can keep adolescents occupied in alternative healthy ways such as an alcohol-free ‘Saturday night dance’. It also hopes to enable children to make informed choices about experimenting with drugs and alcohol and to seek appropriate interventions and treatment, if they are addicted.
The book-let, which provides the kick-off point for the CoC program has informative pages, organized into following sections:
1. Elementary, Middle and High School Concerns
2. Brain 101- The Adolescent Brain
3. Brain 101 – Alcohol and Other Drugs
4. Why and Why Not
5. The Negative Effects of Substance Abuse…. Help
6. Signs and Symptoms … Communication
7. Parties and Social Scene
8. Beyond High School
9. Legal Consequences
10. Resources… Drug Chart and Pictures
An important highlight on page seven of the booklet, in ‘Brain 101- The Adolescent Brain is Vulnerable’, is the information that from both biochemical and structural studies of the brain, adolescents are not “young adults” because their brains are structurally different from those of adults. Young brains respond differently to alcohol and other drugs and may be less resilient to the negative effects of these substances than adult brains. It also informs that the National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that most addictions develop during adolescence. Neuroscientists now know that the brain chemical dopamine is one of the keys to addiction and adolescents may release more dopamine in response to drugs, and this would explain why youth are at greater risk for addiction. The entire book-let similarly involves the reader cognitively with data and evidence to back up the claims of the ill effects of substance abuse on young minds. A corollary to the booklet is the e-learning course titled Online Parent’s Guide.
As parents converge to embrace the scientific truth behind substance addictions in youth, they do not stop there. The cerebral awakening prompts them to enter into a partnership with each other, and with the school administration, the school counselors, and psychologists to network in a feasible manner to keep their children safe through education and creation of healthy alternatives to channel their emotions and impulses. This empowerment comes about with a better understanding of adolescent issues and the desire to become equipped to deal with them, but in a collective and all- encompassing manner, touching the many facets of substance addiction causes, such as stress, peer pressure and difficult academic transitions. The Co C principle is simple- “Share your experiences, questions, suggestions, fears, victories and failures. If you do we are confident that good things will happen- for you and for your children/students.”
The fact that the CoC initiative has taken root in 31 states with varying numbers of schools covered (largely at the high school level), speaks for its popularity in providing an uninhibited forum for parents to feel connected with each other and the opportunity to creatively inculcate a safe environment culture for their children with their active participation. The CoC has also made international inroads into Canada, El Salvador, and Mexico. So when the idea was brought to the town of West Hartford in 2003,one would have assumed that given the relatively well-educated population with 53% having acquired a bachelor’s degree or more as against 31% in the State of Connecticut (as of 2000), and given the yearly alcohol related tragedies in the town, parents would have given their stamp of approval to the two parent- teacher organizations (PTOs’) of the two high schools rather instantly. But how could the parent population described as ‘latent’ publics in the beginning of this article, even be interested in learning more about the CoC tool unless an effort was made to draw them into the situation?
A Partnership that almost did not form
In spite of its national popularity, the CoC initiative almost did not come to fruition in the town of West Hartford. The experience for Laurie Maulucci, in this town was nothing like it was in the fifteen or so Connecticut schools, where the concept had a gestation period of about six months, before it took roots in those communities. In West Hartford, Laurie had to spend more than two years in getting support for the idea before its official launch in the fall of 2006, in the two West Hartford public schools- Hall High and Conard. From the time she first took the idea (in 2003) to the West Hartford Substance Abuse Prevention Commission, until its kick-off, she attended almost every meeting of the Commission, trying to market this national product for the empowerment of parents toward providing a safe environment for their children. While the Commission took to it instantly, it became a challenge for this advisory body to market it to its primary audience, specifically the parents of the two High Schools.
There were several occasions at the meetings, when the Chairperson of the Commission, Mr. John Lemega, a parent whose daughter had been a victim of substance abuse while she had attended Hall High in her teenage years, expressed overt frustration at the lack of parental interest. He always wished that such knowledge-based, influential networking system had existed during his parenting days that would have helped him deal with his own personal problem with his daughter’s drug addiction. He could not understand how the schools’ parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) were unable to elicit support for this simple, yet empowering concept, for a problem with severe consequences.
After months of regular meetings during which the CoC initiative became a steady item on the agenda and after going back and forth with the PTO representatives on the Commission, the idea remained largely confined to this Town Council organization. School counselors and the administration spoke of the lack of parental leadership in the two schools, which was a prerequisite for the launching of the program in any community, as it was based on the fundamental premise of being a parent-driven initiative. The parents had to come up with real support for the booklet idea and for inviting experts such as Dr. Wilkie Wilson, (Duke University), in the field of brain research and author of the booklet. They had to be seized with the zeal of using the CoC resources to make a difference in the lives of their children. But they also had to be involved in finding resources - money, time and services for the kick-off meeting and beyond for a sustained momentum of the program. Far from any of these things happening, parents continued to drag their feet on just simply accepting the concept in principle.
The Commission’s Public Relations foray
At this point the Commission stepped out of its usual advisory role, which had been to engage its members including the parent and school administration representatives in a discussion on the CoC initiative and come to a collective agreement about its usefulness or otherwise to the community. It was for the parents to take it from there. However, the WHSAPC, an official organization of the town, led by John Lemega, stepped up its role (around January 2005) to an administrative function, by making a Public Relations foray of effecting change in perceptions and possibly attitudes of parents in the community, to giving up their stance of remaining on the fringes and coming center stage for creating a safe environment for their children.
The Commission’s role transition was inspired by the show of commitment and perseverance by the Chairperson John Lemega, Laurie Maulucci of CoC, principals, Don Slater (Hall) and Chuck Landroche (Conard), the assistant principals Dona Namnoum (Hall) and Jason Beaudin (Conard), and Hall school counselor Chris Bivona. Other commission members Stephen Guest (parent advocate) Judy Bierly of Bridge Family Center and Cruger Phillips and Frank Hills of Hope Works also extended their support. Together they recognized as suggested in the situational theory ((J. G ruing & Hunt, 1984) that although the problem was ‘parental disinterest’, the constraint was a mix of parents’ state of denial, a belief that substance use was a ‘rite of passage’ in high school, and an illusion that their children were safe, which reflected in their low level of involvement in seeking information on the subject. If the constraint were to be overcome, parents would begin to seek more information concomitant with their increased level of involvement, and be better equipped to help their children either in a preventive way or to seek interventions.
Viewing this situation of ‘low parental involvement in substance abuse issues of the youth’ through the social judgment theory (Sherif & Nebergall, 1965), the stance of remaining on the fringes, constituted the parents ‘latitude of noncommitment’. They did not actually reject the statement that a substance problem existed in the high schools (which was also substantiated by the school surveys), but were on the fences, and therefore it could be safely predicted that a message of persuasion on the subject would potentially influence perceptions and attitudes as was intended by the message. The Commission had its work cut out- to design a compelling message and employ an appropriate medium of channeling it to the target audiences of parents and their children, to bring them on board the CoC.
Campaign principles and strategy
At the ensuing meetings in 2005, the members discussed the possible ways of reaching out to parents and concluded that as in any audience there would exist a mix of members- a category that needs to be persuaded cognitively and another group that needs emotional persuasion using true personal stories. In combination the cognitively persuasive (cognitive route) and emotionally moving (peripheral or secondary route) messages would constitute the dual system of Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty& Cacioppo, 1981) for changing parental perceptions and attitudes that the substance abuse problem in the schools was real, was affecting their children directly or indirectly and that the community needed their active attention and involvement.
It was decided that the two committed parents John Lemega and Stephen Guest with personal stories to tell along with Laurie Maulucci, the strong CoC advocate, would constitute a team that would personally convey the dual (cognitive and emotional) message to parents. The two schools’ administration provided necessary support by helping the team to tell their story and present data and analysis to parents that were captive audiences at events such as the curriculum night and mandatory athletic assemblies, with guaranteed attendances. At the end of the personal tragedy section of the September 2005 curriculum night, 145 parents signed up in support of the initiative at Hall High School, which was a small but important milestone.
Several other meetings followed with the two PTO’s for a more focused discussion and to identify and enlist parent leadership. A program was organized in October of 2005 with a speaker Mr. Jamie Binnall who shared his personal story of the death of his best friend in a drunken driving accident (Jamie was driving), changing his outlook on life completely. Jamie, who took time off his law school program in San Diego, to be with the parents and students was effective because his history runs parallel to that of the youth. Another program was ‘Impact’ comprising a team of three mothers whose poignant personal stories with alcohol related tragedies struck a chord with parents.
An important component of the campaign was the employment of media, both print and community television to communicate the detrimental effects of alcohol on adolescent behavior with the audiences. This was done in several ways. Stephen Guest who along with the WHSAPC began campaigning for the Underage Drinking Bill (which eventually became law on October 1,2006) worked for its wide publicity in the community, with articles in the Courant, and coverage on TV Channel 5. Officer Marc Bassos (Police department representative on the Commission) was urged to give publicity to infractions and consequences in the Town Ordinance violation cases, to keep the subject alive in the community.
The PR campaign began showing results as parents at the two high schools, albeit separately, began to form committees with a view to plan the CoC kick-off at their respective schools, which primarily involved funding the booklet. The key achievement of the campaign was the emergence of several parent leaders at both high schools who came forward to support the initiative, and to volunteer time and talent to a cause they finally put their faith into. The other achievement was to gain vital support from the two schools’ administration to facilitate the CoC programs. Last but not the least John Lemega convinced the Board of Education to contribute seed money (about a total sum of $ 3000) to give the program the initial push.
Chris Bivona school counselor (Hall High) who has been with WHSAPC since inception, attributes the slow but committed response to the careful consideration of the initiative by parents after initial skepticism and therefore feels it is that much likely to be sustained. It does not surprise her that West Hartford parents who have seen so many initiatives come and go, took their time to garner financial support for the booklet and for the speaker Dr. Wilkie Wilson. The decision to finally run with the idea came when the two schools had collected the necessary funds and together they launched the program in the fall of 2006. The newly emerged parent leadership of the two high schools had finally accepted ownership of their youth’s substance abuse problem and has begun networking to form a strong partnership for dealing with it.
PR at work at grass roots levels
The WHSAPC’s Public Relations foray, which set, into process parental networking and partnership actually also set into motion a duplication of the communication theories (situational theory, social judgment theory and ELB model of persuasion) at the grassroots level, mirroring the PR process at the Commission level. Speaking with twenty-three of the forty five Commission members representing parents, school administration, counselors, psychologists, and health experts, it became apparent that they were coming up with similar public relations responses to give momentum and sustenance to the concept beyond the kick-off events.
Parental leadership at both schools started giving formal structure to their initiative by forming various committees for their respective Community of Concern entities, yet exhibiting solidarity by publishing the booklet jointly and co-coordinating the Dr. Wilkie Wilson event for all parents in the town. The leadership is well aware of mixed responses to the CoC idea among the general population of West Hartford parents affected by the problem in some way or the other and is endeavoring to reach out to them in ways they would be receptive to opening up to fresh possibilities of fighting the social malaise.
Stephen Guest advocates the need for rescinding of the alcohol party culture by parents in West Hartford, thus preventing alcohol from being served to minors. He keeps saying it is ‘an adult problem’ more than a ‘kid’ problem. Helen Drohan (of the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health district and parent) and Doreen Oshinskie (parent) understand how parents can be naïve to believe that their children can be safe as long as they are not themselves involved in consuming drug and alcohol. They need to be educated that a risky environment exists as long as other kids indulge in substance abuse and an innocent act of taking a ride from a friend who is drunk can cost them their lives, as was seen in the example of Kristine, Stephen Guest’s daughter. And sometimes parents are unable to discern a problem because they do not see a decline in their children’ academic performance right away says Chris Bivona (school counselor). Pastor Martha Klein Larsen (parent) who’s had a personal tragic story related to alcohol in her family, explains how well children can hide their issues from parents and make them believe that small aberrations in their behavior is not a big deal.
It is not surprising then that enlightened parent leaders such as Jeff Bersin, Karen Connal, Ann Leabam, and Laurie Bertini are not the ones with substance abuse issues with their children. They are well aware of the many reasons that parents remain blind to the problem and are rudely awoken, but briefly when a tragedy involving the youth happens in the town. Jeff Bersin and Karen Connal, who speak at some of the forums, admit that a single kick-off meeting and a few speakers is not enough to influence parents who are either in denial or are stigmatized to come out in the open. They have therefore drawn up an annual program of events under the CoC initiative that will provide a non-threatening environment for parents and students to meet and dialogue on the subject.
The parent leadership feels that the initial number of a fifty or a hundred at the De-Caf house, the stress night, or the nutrition night is a good start to trigger a chain of motivation, which will involve more parents to seek information and help at these frequent events. They want to give their public service message of making ‘substance abuse’ the concern of every parent and that of the community, a chance to make to as many points of contacts as possible Cruger Phillips (Hope Works) who has attended these events affirms the merit of creating an environment for both parents and adolescents to speak up and connect without the conscious scrutiny in a therapist’s office. By providing a variety of avenues and message orientation (cognitive and emotional) the parent leadership hopes to be close to customizing the message for a diverse group of parent mindsets. Finally they are mindful of developing a second line of leadership to ensure a sustained life for CoC and are in the process of building a valuable partnership between parents, students, and those that are in an authoritative role in the community to weave a safety net around the youth. Joe Kalache, the town’s Human Services department representative on the WHSAPC observes that parental support has encouraged the Commission to augment its role in creating a safe environment for the youth.
New Perspective for those in positions of influence
One cannot miss the euphoria and sense of relief that those in authority now exude in anticipation of greater support to creating a more positive and safe school environment for students. Betty –Remigino-Knapp, (athletic director, for Conard and High), Chris Bivona (Hall school counselor), Cruger Phillips (Hope Works) and Donna Namnoum (assistant principal at Hall) all agree that raised parental awareness and being educated about the problem is key. Betty feels encouraged by the new partnership and is hoping that the CoC initiative in the two schools will create a new understanding between parents, students and coaches to implement the ‘zero tolerance substance use policy’, which is rather tough when parents are not the same page with regard to the issue. She is thinking of ways to keep that newfound connection alive and pave the way to extend the ‘zero-tolerance policy’ to other extra-curricular activities along the way, with parents’ concurrence.
Chris Bivona mentions that the CoC has already helped to bring a few parents out into the open for discussing crucial issues of poor physical and emotional development of children experimenting with drugs. She explains the cognitive component of the CoC initiative is aimed at making parents aware that both children and parents can easily be fooled into thinking that some use of the drug is not harmful, because academic performances do not suffer right away, but the impairment eventually catches up, not to speak of the gaps in normal development of adolescents. Helen Drohan, who apart from her administrative role in the health area is also a parent, feels that the parental networking CoC provides helps parents take a closer look at their children’s lives and seek preventive measures, for instance to curb drunken driving, by discussing with children how to deal with situations involving drunkenness. Donna Namnoum says that new partnership has had the ripple effect of touching middle school parents and administration. They are seriously thinking of starting the initiative earlier in the lives of students while still in their formative years. She says encouraged by closer ties with parents and seeing their enthusiasm and support has also spurred school administrations to take keen interest in engaging students constructively.
Student Leadership forums
The third force of the troika is the emergence of a task-specific student leadership, which is in step with the motivated parental leadership and the enthused school administration. The two schools have come together to form a joint student leadership forum for open communication on the subject of substance abuse. According to student leaders, Tyler (a senior at Conard), Drew Iacovazzi (a senior at Hall), Matt Bieringer (a junior at Hall) and Jeremy Bersin (an ex-student of Hall and now a college freshman) agree that diverse representation from athletics, student government bodies and others interested in contributing to bank of ideas, is empowering and effective because of their proximity to their peers. They met twice in the academic year 2006-07 and came forth with numerous ideas to find ways of helping each other in staying away from substance abuse. See Appendix C for ideas the forums came up with.
One such idea that took flight swiftly was the creation of ‘The Grounds’ (See Appendix D); a registered non-profit organization spearheaded by Ronit Shoham and other Hall parents. The concept is to provide a safe, positive and drug, tobacco and alcohol free environment for West Hartford high school and middle school students. The organization is to be governed by students with the assistance of an advisory board staffed by adults and students. Their mission states that the students will be encouraged to initiate and organize activities that will serve to improve their social and recreational lives and provide leadership and community service experience. The Grounds has held events sponsored by the local Panera Bread in January 2006 and February 2007 with attendance growing form 128 a the first event to 250 during the second event. These and other events and engagements are aimed at providing a fun-filled alternative to alcohol and drug parties and thus initiate a cultural change in the youth.
The principles of public relations at play at the level of the Commission and now in progress at the grass roots level is beginning to change perceptions and attitudes of parents and children, who are coming center stage to address the issue of substance abuse in a renewed environment of trust and co-operation. The initiative has also successfully elicited local business and product brand support such as from Panera and Starbucks give their events and programs a sustained life. John Lemega (Commission chairperson) and Judy Bierly (Bridge family Center) are glad that their work is done and that they can now turn their focus from the youth to other sections of the community in the fight against substance abuse.
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Hall High Drug and Alcohol Survey Summary
1285 of our 1580 students took the survey on September 2, 2005.
Concerned about the drinking culture on campuses?
This site provides information as to the seriousness of the problem.
In loving Memory of Kristine Guest