Anti-vaping program takes positive approach

Jessica Koscher, director of the Elkhart County Drug Free Partnership, explains the Positively Elkhart County program to the county council.

GOSHEN — A $50,000 appropriation for a school anti-drug program was more than twice the amount county officials first set aside, but they say they were struck by the need for anti-vaping education.

County leaders are contributing to the Positively Elkhart County program offered by the Elkhart County Drug Free Partnership, which is now in almost every school district after the recent addition of Elkhart and Goshen community schools. It steers students away from drugs and alcohol by helping them understand that their peers aren’t using them as much as they might think, according to partnership Director Jessica Koscher.

In presenting the request to the Elkhart County Council for final approval Saturday, county Commissioner Mike Yoder said the issue of vaping in schools recently came to his attention. He said it was being examined by a high school anthropology class that he spoke to, which lead to a joint meeting involving law enforcement, the drug free partnership and others.

He said it all made him see the tobacco alternative of electronic cigarettes a little differently. It was an impression that only grew stronger with the recent news of vaping-related health risks.

“Honestly, I thought vaping was something you did as a transition from smoking to non-smoking. And I found out that, indeed, that’s not the case, and there is a serious issue in our high schools related with vaping,” he said. “In my personal opinion, vaping is now the new methodology that the tobacco industry has figured out how to not only keep adults addicted to nicotine, but actually encourage the use in our youth.”

Yoder and the other commissioners started looking for an anti-vaping program that could reach into the schools, and set aside $20,000 to help fund it. He said they found what they were looking for in Koscher’s program, and decided the issue was important enough to increase their funding proposal to $50,000.

“We want to see projects that have an impact across the county as much as possible. Secondly, we also like projects where there’s some metric where we can measure their success, whether we’re making some progress,” he told the council. “I think that’s what you’ll find with this particular program, which is, I think, unique and includes some metrics.”

Change in worldview

Koscher explained how the Positively program took shape after she and Chief Deputy Sean Holmes with the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office learned about the social norming model in 2012. She said the model uses different tactics from traditional, fear-based anti-drug messaging, which people instinctively look away from.

Some traditional tactics also risk sending the wrong message, she noted, like the mock car crashes that the partnership used to put together. 

“Sure, it gets kids aware and it kind of gives that fear factor,” she said, “but when they then do that behavior themselves and they don’t die in a fiery crash, they kind of just go, ‘Oh, that’s just a gimmick.’”

Even the DARE program has largely been dropped from schools because it was ineffective, she said.

Using survey-based data to show the gap between perceptions of drug or alcohol use among students and actual reported rates of use is a more positive message, Koscher said, which kids lean towards more. She said it shows kids the decisions they’re already making.

“We talk about what most kids are doing and we talk about their attitudes as well. So for example with vaping, we know when we surveyed, that 80 percent of kids are not vaping on a regular basis. But they think everybody is, they think 90 percent are,” she said. “I may go, ‘Well I didn’t drink this weekend, I didn’t drink last night, but I think all you did.’ And then what we find out in the classroom is, ‘Well geeze, only one guy did. Or one lady did.’ It changes your worldview.’”

The survey they use also addresses prescription medication abuse, gambling and suicidal thoughts, she said.

County council members asked mainly about vaping as well as marijuana, which drew fresh attention with its legalization in Michigan.

Koscher said in addition to its prevention efforts, the partnership also focuses on criminal justice and addiction treatment. She said for the past 17 years, alcohol has been the No. 1 cause of people going into treatment and marijuana has always been No. 2.

“I continually say we need to focus on alcohol and marijuana, ‘cause when we’re looking at adults entering treatment, that’s what we’re seeing has derailed their lives. And it’s been consistent with the 17 years I’ve been with the partnership, and my guess is it will be consistent ongoing,” she said. “We’re keeping our eyes on it, we’re continuing to educate and really help people understand what the actual problems are around marijuana.”

She added that smoking used to be something they left to Tobacco Control in the county health department, while the partnership focused more on alcohol and marijuana. But the rise of vaping made it impossible to ignore.

“That’s why this is not just an anti-vaping program in Positively Elkhart County, we handle all these substances,” she said. “We are looking at the entire spectrum of substance abuse and how we address that with youth in our community.”

2020 budget

Also Saturday, the Elkhart County Council passed a $116.4 million total budget for 2020. It was a little lower than the $117.7 million estimate submitted to the state.

The budget includes $55.1 million in the general fund, which covers the budget for several departments. Those include the county commissioners, at $20.8 million,  the sheriff’s office, $8.4 million, prosecuting attorney, $2.8 million, building and grounds, $2.1 million, county clerk, $1.9 million, and public defender’s office, $1.9 million.

The budget also includes $5.5 million in the highway fund, which sets aside $3 million for maintenance and repair; $4.4 million in solid waste disposal; $3.5 million in the health department; $2 million in parks and recreation; and $1.8 million in local roads and streets. 

There is also a total of $12.6 million in criminal justice facilities, $6.6 million in public safety, $2.4 million in the convention and visitors bureau, $1.9 million in road maintenance and construction, $1.7 million in the 911 system and $1.5 million in the major bridge fund.

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