GOSHEN — A program that challenges students’ views of substance abuse among their peers has doubled in size with the addition of the Elkhart and Goshen school districts.
Positively Elkhart County is a year-round program offered by the Elkhart County Drug Free Partnership for the past six years. It surveys students on what they perceive is the rate of drug and alcohol use by others their age, then helps them understand what the actual rates are.
There’s often a gap between perception and reality when it comes to rates of smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs among students, according to partnership Director Jessica Koscher. If students understand their peers aren’t using these substances as much as they imagine, they’re less likely to start using them themselves, she said.
“We know the public in general, and particularly kids, are influenced by peer pressure. They make decisions based on what everyone else is doing,” she said. “Our goal is to narrow the gap between perception and reality.”
They get their data by surveying students about how often they think their peers are smoking or drinking, and about whether they’ve picked up those habits themselves. She noted they have six years of data to rely on.
They emphasize the rates of non-use rather than the rates of use, Koscher said, so for example they tell students that 96 percent of high schoolers drink non-alcoholic beverages when they’re hanging out with friends. She said 80 percent say they don’t approve of people their age drinking beer or wine, and nearly 80 percent report not using alcohol in the past month.
“In our messaging, we say that most Elkhart County students are choosing not to drink,” she said. “The message is that the norm for behavior, for the choices they make, is to not use alcohol.”
It’s a similar story with tobacco use and smoking. She said 80 percent of students reported not using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days and 80 percent said they hadn’t used normal cigarettes in that time.
Before learning the actual rates of use, students often assume the opposite.
“For example, with 80 percent of kids not using tobacco – they perceive that 80 percent of kids are using it,” she said. “Or we ask how many they think are vaping, and they say all, or they say 80 percent, when we know that 80 percent are not doing it.”
Their goal is to see the gap between perception and reality narrow more every year, Koscher added.
“What we hope to see is that they think next year it’s 60 percent,” she said. “We hope to dial in on actual use.”
‘A cross-county program’
The partnership based the student program on the positive community norms framework. Having the numbers to back up an anti drug message is what makes the program work, Koscher said.
“That’s why we picked the program, and why it’s effective: It’s one of the only prevention programs we’ve seen that shows statistically the change in behavior and perception,” she said. “We can show what’s statistically significant about the gap between perception and reality. It means that kids are understanding that their peers are not using drugs.”
Positively Elkhart County previously ran in different grades in Baugo, Fairfield, Concord and Middlebury schools. Koscher said they signed on Elkhart and Goshen community schools for this year, which doubled the size of the program.
She said they work with 15,600 students in the county, or 99 percent of the middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. To be fully funded, she said they would need to have $10 to $15 per student.
The program receives support from the Drug Free Community Fund, she said. It also got a little financial help when the Elkhart County Commissioners voted to appropriate $50,000 from the Environmental Special Projects Fund earlier this month.
The commissioners previously approved an agreement with the Drug Free Partnership at the Aug. 26 meeting. They remarked on how the program could impact vaping among teens in particular, but noted it will address all smoking and drug use.
“This was brought to our attention. It’s a pretty serious matter. I think if any of you are aware of the issues with vaping, you know it’s pretty serious,” Commissioner Mike Yoder said at the Aug. 26 meeting.
Koscher said they’re currently working to establish the program in the two new school corporations now that the new school year is under way. She said it involves establishing a student council with 10 to 15 members, who get the word out and engage the other students in activities.
“It’s a great program and a great plan to impact kids,” she said. “We’re pretty excited that we have a cross-county program now.”