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PACT brings drug, alcohol prevention work to larger Southwest community

Group hosts town hall meeting, solicits suggestions for next steps

HILLSDALE - Bringing its message to the larger Southwest Portland community, Wilson High School's Positive Actions Concerning Teen's (PACT) team shared the results of its hard work May 23, soliciting feedback about the next steps to take in its campaign to reduce teen drug and alcohol use and the misconceptions surrounding it.

Students, parents, administrators and community members gathered at a town hall meeting at St. Barnabus Episcopal Church in Hillsdale to discuss the group's findings.

Started in 2009, PACT is a team of Wilson upperclassman working to clarify the realities of underage drug and alcohol use for their peers. PACT is operated through a partnership with Oregon Partnership, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end substance abuse and suicide throughout the state.

Through satellite teams operated at Wilson as well as formerly at Marshall High School, Oregon Partnership and its youth teams work to counter the common misperceptions that may lead to underage substance abuse.

Completing peer-to-peer randomized surveys, these teams collect data from students about their use and their perceptions of use and develop a media campaign to help disseminate more accurate information.

'At Wilson, there are some highly visible users,' said Emily Moser, parenting programs director for Oregon Partnership, including several athletes. 'This does change the perception (of use).'

From distributing surveys to working with a creative team, PACT students have been involved from start to finish with this Positive Social Norms Media Campaign.

Their efforts have earned national recognition through PACT's involvement with the Above the Influence campaign, coordinated by the Office of the National Drug Control Policy.

And locally, this effort has paid off with the numbers it has produced.

Wilson administrators said alcohol- and drug-related school infractions have decreased by 28 percent since the start of PACT's campaign.

And, according to Vice Principal Marshall Haskins, this overall number would be lower but for one day in April that saw 18 violations. Of the 18 infractions, 12 were handed out to one group of freshmen students, he said, and only three of these students were actually smoking marijuana.

'With prevention work, there's no real way to gauge its impact … and it takes awhile to get a foothold,' he said. 'The numbers say there's been a reduction, and I think it's larger.'

At the town hall meeting, PACT members reported that they'd seen a decrease in both the actual and perceived use of drugs and alcohol at Wilson.

Students surveyed also reported that their feelings of safety at school had increased, as did the number of positive relationships they had with their teachers.

'We stand for something 'uncool,'' senior PACT member Hawir Kadir said. 'It feels good to know we are making an impact.'

As part of its first media campaign during the 2009-2010 school year, PACT members created magnets they posted around school talking about the perceived and actual use of marijuana at Wilson.

Some PACT members said they were confused when they first saw these magnets, and so their goal was to take a 'softer approach' with last year's campaign materials.

Aside from their PACT T-shirts, students created posters and floor decals discussing the misperceptions surrounding teen substance use.

They also turned to organizing more prevention events, hosting a Halloween party that featured not only dancing but movie screenings and games as well.

PACT's latest media blast came in the form of window decals that read 'Do experiments in the lab, not on your body,' which were placed in the school's science classrooms.

PACT members said their next goal is to branch out into the larger community beyond Wilson, engaging local business and community leaders and sharing information with middle-school students before they transition to high school.

The group has already held meetings at the Multnomah Arts Center and with the Multnomah and Hillsdale neighborhood associations, Wilson's PTA, Southwest Neighborhood Inc.'s schools committee and more to share the result of its efforts and experiences with the larger Southwest Portland community.

One particular focus will be on parent education, especially for parents who provide alcohol to their teenagers and their friends in their homes.

'There's not a large enough conversation about this issue,' Haskins said.

Community members at the town hall meeting said that, outside of school-sponsored social events, students often engage in underage drinking at prom and football game after-parties.

They said they've also heard of students drinking before high school dances hosted by venues such as the Multnomah Arts Center and the Fulton Community Center that are not sponsored by the school.

'A lot of parents just want to be cool,' said Jim Thurlow, a PACT member parent who attended the town hall meeting.

He said the civil - and legal - costs for parents of hosting events with alcohol need to be better emphasized.

Moser said one challenge for PACT would be using the resources that are already in place to spread its message to the community.

'How do you get the message across to the people that matter?' she said. 'At Wilson, you don't get the whole parent population (at educational events).'

Discussions at the town hall meeting also suggested PACT expand its efforts to establish peer counseling opportunities and possibly involve underclassmen in the group, which is now open only to juniors and seniors.

The Multnomah County grant that funded PACT last year has run out, and the group is in the process of applying for another. In the meantime, it is struggling to find funding to maintain its programming.

Moser pointed out that Wilson's substance use rates - for example, the statistic that 30 percent of its students smoke marijuana - are similar to those seen in high schools nationwide.

'These numbers are hard to hear but accurate,' she said, and they require long-term efforts.

'(However), if we continue to put kids in a position where they have to make a decision, more often than not, they'll make the right one,' Haskins said.