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Fact-based curriculum, peer outreach key for SFUSD substance abuse prevention

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All San Francisco Unified School District comprehensive high schools and many middle schools have Wellness Centers, which offer counseling and support for students around drug use. (Courtesy photo)

We know it’s inevitable — at some point our children will be offered the opportunity to try drugs. A recent event at one of our schools has prompted me to share more information about how our educators approach the important topic of substance abuse prevention.

While we can’t always be there to guide youth in making responsible choices, we hope the information they get at home and at school will equip them with the skills to make good decisions.

So far, the signs are pointing in the right direction. Let’s talk about marijuana use, for example. Over the past 10 years, the number of middle school students who say they have ever used marijuana has dropped from less than eight percent to less than four percent. Twenty-five percent of San Francisco Unified high school students say they have tried marijuana. While this is concerning, it is considerably lower than the national average.

We do a pretty good job, but from time to time something happens and we are reminded that we must stay diligent. Research shows that having fact-based open conversations about drugs are most effective.

Our approach to preventing drug and alcohol abuse uses evidence-based curriculum and something even more fundamental — fostering strong communities and a sense of purpose and belonging for each of our students.

While teachers have freedom to augment, the SFUSD mandates use of certain curriculum. These lessons address the pro-drug mindset many teens have.

Lessons guide students through identifying drugs and understanding the science behind the effect drugs can have on their body. They look at how some marketing and entertainment promotes drug and alcohol use so students can become critical consumers of these media. We emphasize how, just because something is legal, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.

Our high school counselors and nurses select and train students to be Youth Outreach Workers. These youth educators provide peer-to-peer teaching and outreach, make classroom presentations and develop public service announcements that address issues like substance abuse. For teens, hearing from peers can be far more influential than adults.

All SFUSD comprehensive high schools and many middle schools have Wellness Centers, which offer counseling and support for students around drug use. Additionally, school social workers and nurses also provide Brief Intervention counseling. This consists of two to three one-on-one sessions that focus on why students are using drugs or alcohol. It supports students to set goals and make healthier, more informed choices relating to drug or alcohol use.

In anticipation of marijuana legalization taking effect, the district reviewed its drug education materials and reminded all staff who teach drug education to reinforce important information.

Of course, there are times in our lives when we have made poor decisions but we want to minimize the potentially devastating effect these decisions can have on our futures and on those we love.

Young people are going to seek out new experiences. That is an important part of their development. You can help prevent negative effects by starting the conversation about drugs with youth in your life, and make sure they are aware of potential consequences.

Vincent Matthews is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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