Ty Swenson
A Cascade Middle School student-designed t-shirt that reads, "Above the Influence / Under the Rain" is one of many projects students committed to combating drug and alcohol abuse at the White Center school have taken on this year. In the background, Coalition for Drug-Free Youth members listen to what the students have to say.

Cascade Middle School students working to make their environment drug-free

The passage of legalized recreational marijuana use for those 21-and-over in Washington State has put those working against youth drug and alcohol abuse on edge as they watch how statistics and real-life situations bore out the impact of I-502.

As Cascade Middle School Vice Principal Jacob Ellis put it, “As all of you know Washington State passed a marijuana law and no surprise to anyone, we saw an increase in marijuana use in kids that had never tried it before.”

Ellis made his comments at the onset of a meeting at Cascade, in White Center, that brought kids and adults together to talk about strategies to keep minors away from drugs and alcohol.

On one side of the room was the Coalition for Drug-Free Youth, a federally and county-funded group of adults working on a volunteer basis to set policy and goals in reducing use and abuse in the Highline School District, covering White Center and Burien.

On the other side, 7th and 8th students who have joined Cascade’s new-this-year Prevention Team, an “above the influence” group of kids who are helping fellow students and each other stay away from drugs. The Prevention Team has around 22 members with an additional 20-plus filling out the proper paperwork to join in the near future, according to Student Assistance Counselor Karen Sissom, who heads the team.

What followed was the sharing of a voice the Coalition’s Director Rudy Garza said was sorely missing since its 2012 inception – that of the kids the coalition is trying to help. This initial meeting was one of many the Coalition will have with the Prevention Team to work cross-generationally to make a difference.

Concerns at Lakewood Park/Hicklin Lake
For their first presentation, the Cascade Prevention Team talked about how the daily routine for many students is a walk through neighboring Lakewood Park (where Hicklin Lake resides) before and after school.

While the students said they enjoy the walk for the wildlife, trees and positive elements a park provides, they were less thrilled by daily encounters with litter that usually includes cigarette butts and empty alcohol containers. They said they also encounter the distinct smell and sight of people smoking marijuana in the park. The culprits, they said, range from peers at school to adults using Lakewood for a round of Frisbee golf.

“People are trying to be cool, so their friends can see them (smoking or drinking),” one student said.

“(The litter) makes me feel like people don’t care about the park,” another said.

The Prevention Team already has plans in place to combat these trends, including creating anti-drug and alcohol posters to put up at Cascade (and the park if King County is OK with it), working with adults in the community to pick up trash on a volunteer basis, and looking at the possibility of bringing more trash cans into the park with the help of the county.

Staying above the influence
So how do these kids – these kids who have made a commitment to stay drug and alcohol free during their middle school careers – break through the peer pressure?

Many different ways, they said. For most of the 13 kids who spoke at the meeting, their extracurricular activities were a big part. From gymnastics and soccer to boxing and mixed martial arts, the kids said they had found sports they love and look forward to practicing as much as possible. Others took part in Cascade after-school activities. The students have also brainstormed different tactics on how to remove themselves from situations where a fifth of liquor gets opened up, a pack of cigarettes unraveled or a bag of marijuana is produced.

One 7th grader (we didn’t have permission to use student names or take photos during the meeting) said staying away from drugs and alcohol takes more than just what they as individuals can do, however. For her, one of the biggest factors is parents, teachers, older siblings and adults in the community “supporting youth in their interests and dreams.”

As the meeting wrapped up it was clear the adults in the room – many of them professionals working in the non-profit world to help others in need or those with drug and alcohol dependency – were energized by this small but fully-engaged group of students who have joined their mission.

“Their participation is really important to the coalition,” Garza said.

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