High schools collaborate on substance abuse, bullying programs

VERGENNES — It’s rare that scores of Mount Abraham students fill the bleachers of the Vergennes Union High School gym for something other than a basketball game.
But last Friday, hundreds of students from both high schools sat in the same set of bleachers in the VUHS gym to hear a presentation on substance abuse by motivational speaker Kevin Brooks, followed by student-led discussion forums. Meanwhile back in Bristol, students from the Vergennes and Mount Abraham middle schools gathered for workshops on bullying.
“It was really cool to be with the Vergennes students, because we are such rivals,” said MAUHS senior Amanda Vincent.
Brooks travels across the United States and Canada and gives frank presentations on the consequences of substance abuse. Once a snowboarder, the Canadian Brooks lost the use of his legs — and his best friend Brandon — after crashing his car while intoxicated. Brooks, who is wheelchair bound, played a slideshow of himself and his friends snowboarding before the accident, as students filed into the presentation.
After the rousing talk many students gathered around Brooks to talk personally with him until they were ushered out of the gym to classrooms.
“He was quite a dynamic speaker, and had an impact on the students,” said Peter Reynolds, co-principal of VUHS. “At one point he asked the kids to wiggle their toes, to think about what they could be giving up if they make bad decisions, like he did.”
Brooks specifically urged the teenagers to wiggle their toes when confronted with a difficult, potentially life-changing decision, and to let that little act prompt them to ask themselves if they were willing to give up wiggling their toes in the future.
After Brooks’ talk, VUHS morning meeting groups and MAUHS advisory groups were paired up for student-led discussions on the drug and alcohol issues in the community and potential solutions. Some of the solutions discussed ranged from the legalization and control of marijuana distribution to educational initiatives and community support groups.
Vincent, one of the student leaders selected to facilitate Friday’s discussion and continue student leadership on the issues in the future, welcomed the chance to get to know her peers at VUHS better.
“We just worked together to come up with a solution,” she said.
At VUHS, student facilitators were culled from the leadership ranks of student organizations. At MAUHS, students were asked to anonymously submit the name of a peer that they would go to in a time of crisis.
“You saw the same names emerging,” said MAUHS Principal Andy Kepes.
With drug and alcohol abuse widely perceived to be on the rise in Addison County, school officials along with community leaders and police have sought strategies to help area students make informed decisions about drug and alcohol consumption.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel also spoke to the high school students gathered at VUHS. The Vergennes Police Department put $1,000 toward finding a speaker to address substance abuse issues.
“The big focus in the community right now is taking a hard stance about substance abuse,” Merkel said. “We want to have a consistent message in both the Bristol and Vergennes areas that we do not support those kinds of things … I was very happy to see great collaboration between the students.”
Community forums have been held in Vergennes and Bristol to address the growing drug problem, which Kepes said disproportionately affects young people aged 19-30.
“It’s not our (high school) kids, but they’re the ones who will soon be faced with those choices,” Kepes said.
In fact, the 5-Town Area Drug and Safety Community Conversation will continue next Wednesday, April 10, with a meeting in Mount Abe’s large cafeteria from 6:30-8 p.m. The public is invited to get updates from Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs and Addison Northeast Superintendent David Adams, as well as work with other community members on ways to improve school safety.
While the high schoolers were at VUHS on Friday, middle school students from both school districts were attending a presentation on bullying by local radio personality Bruce Zeman and his canine companion, Hobbes, who was a victim of abuse before being adopted by Zeman. Hobbes is the focus of a book on bullying that Zeman recently completed.
“Bullying is an issue in every school,” Reynolds said. “It always has been and probably always will be. The only question is how schools respond, and the best response is to have kids and bystanders speaking up … It builds a safety net.”
Encouraging a student-led safety net was the goal of both of last Friday’s presentations for the students, school officials said.
“We’re trying to build the student voice,” Kepes said. “We’re realizing that we’re doing all of this work and not asking the prime players what they think about what we’re doing.”

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