Project Alert providing a jump for local students

Project Alert providing a jump for local students by M. Jill Karolevitz Smoking, drug use and alcohol abuse pose a threat to children of all ages, but Vermillion�s seventh-, eighth-, ninth- and tenth-graders are getting a jump on prevention with Project Alert.

Vermillion School District is one of 42 districts in South Dakota that have participated in Project Alert since 1997. The research-based program is conducted by the RAND Corporation, with funding from a $5 million grant from the National Institute Against Drug Abuse.

The curriculum for Project Alert is set up for seventh-graders, according to Patty Larsen, a Vermillion School District counselor. It targets tobacco, marijuana and alcohol prevention.

�Based on studies done by the RAND Corporation, Project Alert is one of six research-based prevention programs that makes the grade,� Larsen said. �One of the reasons it�s so effective in preventing or forestalling alcohol, marijuana and cigarette use is because it is built on the social influences model of prevention.

�The program targets social influences � why do people use cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana? The lessons look at advertising, sports figures, peers and

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parents,� Larsen added. �It teaches how to dissect the influences on them that are out there.�

After two years of Project Alert, however, the RAND Corporation, through its research, found that students needed more.

�Research showed that Project Alert was effective, but once the students got to high school, the prevention barrier began to erode,� Larsen said.

Thus, the initiation of Project Alert Plus.

�South Dakota was chosen by RAND to be the pilot state for Project Alert Plus, which basically adds lessons to Project Alert,� Larsen said. �Vermillion is in what is termed the ?A-Plus� group, meaning we implement Project Alert in seventh grade, then students in eighth, ninth and tenth grade receive booster lessons.�

The curriculum is very interactive, Larsen said.

�There is very little straight lecturing,� she said. �One of the activities for students is to create lists � reasons for using or not using. Out of that, they break the lists down into how people cope by substance abuse and what the alternatives are. There is also a lot of student-parent interaction. They are assigned to interview their parents � in a ?that was then, this is now� situation � which gets dialogue started between the students and their parents.�

A video about a teen-age drunk driver called No More Joy is also shown.

�The driver kills a woman named Joy,� Larsen said. �It�s a documentary that shows not only the tragedy of her death, but what he loses after the accident.�

The students most enjoy the section of the curriculum that deals with media influences, Larsen said.

�They ?dissect� ads about cigarettes and alcohol,� she said. �Then they find out how they are really being manipulated.�

Tobacco, alcohol and marijuana are the targets of Project Alert and Project Alert Plus because they are �gateways� to stronger drugs, Larsen said.

�Cigarette use rates among ninth- and tenth-graders are going up nationwide,� she said. �Marijuana use has also jumped. And in this community, alcohol is the drug of choice and has been for generations. In our last survey at the beginning of this semester, about one third of the ninth- and tenth-grade students indicated they had used alcohol.

�The bottom line is that Project Alert Plus is trying to lower these numbers,� Larsen continued. �Is it the total answer? I believe it is one link in a chain. School can only be one little cog in the wheel. In order to truly impact youth, we need more than this. We have to have a community effort.�

Project Alert is taught in Sue Adam�s seventh-grade English class. Barb Rickord and Sharon Heisinger, Vermillion Middle School counselors, teach Project Alert Plus at the eighth-grade level. In ninth grade, Larsen teaches the curriculum with Renae Luitjens and Kelly Knutson in the Healthy Lifestyles class. Next year, Larsen will teach the program to tenth-graders.

The Vermillion School District initially got involved in Project Alert due to Larsen�s research.

�I looked at several different prevention programs and this was one of three that seemed to be appropriate,� she said. �And it�s free. The training is free, as is the curriculum.�

But it�s still too early to tell the program�s effectiveness, Larsen added.

�It really has to be a team effort,� she said. �School is only one component in prevention. There are so many outside influences on kids. I think Project Alert is a step in the right direction, and even if we don�t see huge changes in use rates because of this program, I still feel it�s the best approach we�ve got at this point.�

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