When the Council of Prevention wants to know about issues concerning teenagers, it goes directly to the students, surveying seventh- through 12th-graders at schools throughout Washington and Warren counties.
So when prevention educator Melissa Thomas wondered what could be done to deal with some of those issues, she went right to the source and talked to the students themselves.
“I think they have some great ideas for taking action, and they seem to have a lot of great insight into their peers and their community,” Thomas said after meeting with about a dozen Whitehall Central School students in a workshop organized by guidance counselor Kristen Carey and the school’s Peer Helpers.
Thomas, who works for the Hudson Falls-based center, spent more than an hour meeting with the students last week. At the end, she and Carey agreed she should come back for another session.
“It was a great group,” she said. “They really want to make things better here.”
Thomas focused on three specific items from the survey. One-third of the students said they felt it was sometimes all right to cheat in school and half of the students said it is acceptable to beat someone up if they start a fight.
In addition, there was a significant increase in drug and alcohol use from eighth to ninth grade.
On the first topic students said that what some consider cheating – allowing people to copy homework – is simply sharing and is all right because, as one put it, “Everyone needs help sometimes.”
Several students attributed the cheating to laziness and some said it was because some students feel, “This is Whitehall, and I will never get anywhere anyway.” Still others said that some parents simply didn’t care enough to push their students to do homework. Others said students sometimes cheat “to get back at the teacher.”
What was more important to Thomas and Carey was getting the students to come up with ideas on how to deal with the issues. To combat cheating, they said, Peer Helpers need to set an example and encourage students to not let others copy. They also said students need to learn that if they don’t do the work themselves, they will not understand it. They also talked about using study groups.
On the issue of fighting, they wondered what was defense and what was violence. Some said Whitehall is “aggressive town,” and that they see in school what they see at home. The students also said fighting is a way “to stand up for yourself.” They also felt that some students allow others to be bullied.
To combat this, students said they needed to raise awareness of the issue among their peers and among parents as well.
In terms of the jump in drug and alcohol use, senior Troy Rollins, who has been involved with Railroaders Against Violence while in school, said it’s a time of change.
“That summer between eighth and ninth grade, you change quite a bit, and you have more freedom.”
Another student suggested, “It’s the first year of high school, and they want to be cool.”
Rachel Leever said sometimes the problem starts at home. “A lot of kids see their parents do it, so they think it’s OK for them to do it.”
Students also talked about Whitehall being out in the middle of nowhere,” and that “there’s nothing to do.”
They also noted that they felt drug use was lower among athletes, partly because of their reputation and partly because they needed to keep t grades up.
To combat drug use, they advocated peer mentors and a stronger transition program. In fact, the school is designing a stronger program to ease the transition from eighth to ninth grade.
Carey was pleased, and a little surprised and the students’ response.
“I guess it surprised me. I thought there were a few thins the kids didn’t understand, but they did,” she said, mentioning the idea of lack of motivation and the thought that students from Whitehall could not easily succeed after high school.
One of the ideas she really liked was a suggestion to have a “Motivation Week” and to bring successful Whitehall graduates back to the school to talk to students. “I thought that was a really good idea they came up with.”