In Stafford Township, it takes a community to educate students in the dangers of substance abuse – in an award-winning way.
Health care workers from the local hospital, Southern Ocean Medical Center, Stafford Township Police Department D.A.R.E. officers, and local anti-drug-abuse leaders from the Stafford Municipal Alliance joined Stafford Township School District staff to create “Project Aware,” a substance abuse education program that has been recognized by the NJSBA as one of its School Leader Award winners.
“Project Aware” uses a dramatic reenactment to teach sixth-graders the consequences of making bad choices, and to help them discover the power they have to make good choices to avoid drug and alcohol abuse.
Intermediate students in the drama enrichment program created the production, which began in 2001, and which is held each year now as a culmination of the D.A.R.E. and health education classes in Stafford. The program is regularly updated.
Students act out the story of a gathering of 13-year-olds that gets out of hand, and ends in tragedy as a child falls unconscious due to heavy drug and alcohol use. Emergency medical workers are called to the party scene, as the participants scatter.
The story, which begins with a small group of students playing video games and doing homework together, portrays the way a party can grow out of control quickly. With no parents home to supervise, crowds of students arrive at the house and dig into the host student’s parents’ beer and liquor cabinet.
The skit uses real-life details to connect it to the students’ lives and experience. Texting and social media postings on Facebook and Instagram, for example, bring crowds of older teens to the fictitious party.
“Over the years, the party scene has been updated,” wrote school staff, who nominated the project for the School Leader awards. “When writing the script for the party scene, the staff and students discuss what would be relevant to them.”
But the production also demonstrates a way for students to extricate themselves from a bad situation. One of the attendees at the “party” quietly calls her mother for a ride home, but tells friends that her mother had called her, to say she needed to return home to babysit.
“I am really bummed. She is going to be here in a minute and asked me to wait outside,” the student says, in the skit’s dialogue. “See ya later.”
After viewing the party skit, students in the Project Aware program take a field trip to Southern Ocean Medical Center, where emergency room staff speak with them about the dangers of drug use and abuse. Finally, the sixth-graders hear a speech given by Frank Smith, a Gloucester County man and former drug user. Smith suffered a broken pelvis and jaw, and severe brain damage, after falling 40 feet from a tree while under the influence of drugs at age 22. He is now in a wheelchair. His brother also died, in a drunken-driving crash.
Smith tells his personal story of triumph over drugs and alcohol, and asks the students to pledge to be drug free.
The Project Aware message resonated with students who saw it. A survey of 257 students who watched the production in 2013 showed that 96 percent thought the skit was realistic, and 72 percent of the students said the production should be performed for sixth-graders every year.
“The message behind Project Graduation was to be aware of the people you surround yourself with,” one student wrote.
“Understand that drugs and alcohol are serious and a situation like the one shown in the skit can happen to you,” said another.
Some 89 percent said they felt Project Aware would change how they would handle a similar situation, and 97 percent said it was important for police, nurses and emergency squad members to speak to them. In addition, 96 percent of the students queried called Frank Smith’s message important.
“The message was that you need to make good choices to be successful,” one student wrote.
“Don’t do drugs or you would lose the things you love most,” another said.