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Resisting peer pressure, with a little help from friends

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 2, 2020

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — The transition from elementary to middle school can be difficult enough, as students learn how to change classes and make new friends.

Add in peer pressure to try vaping or other substances, however, and there can be more to learn than just reading, writing and arithmetic.

Guiliana Vico, who was an eighth grader at Jefferson Middle School this past school year, said that vaping is quite prevalent at the school. Students have been suspended or expelled for vaping and she, herself, has seen people bring vaping paraphernalia to school.

“We’ve had to permanently leave the bathroom doors open because there’s so many kids who go in there to vape,” she said. “I’ve seen it inside, outside.”

She wanted to join a youth coalition begun by CARE of Southeast Michigan to help her peers know that it’s OK to say no.

Adrienne Gasperoni, community organizer with CARE, said that the organization has been hosting presentations about the dangers of vaping at Jefferson Middle School for the past two years. CARE has met with students as well as parents and staff, and then surveyed students to find out who would like to participate in peer education.

Vico was one of seven students who stepped forward to help develop the youth coalition at the school, which has been meeting all spring, even after COVID-19 led to the closure of school buildings. Gasperoni said it was the eighth graders’ idea to develop a presentation for fifth graders so that they wouldn’t be blindsided when they came to middle school.

“Right now, vaping is a growing concern at the middle school level,” said Emily Bulski, a counselor at JMS, in an email interview. “I believe that some of the increase that we’re seeing with this trend is due to the fact that vape devices are easily disguised. This makes them easier to hide, so students are more likely to try to use them both inside and outside of school.”

“The kids developed a video on why they don’t vape, and it’s a fabulous video,” Gasperoni said.

The students did all the work themselves, she explained, from writing, filming and starring in the video, to editing and publishing it. Eighth grader Emma Dell said they used TikTok to create the video, which she thought appealed more to the younger students.

“I thought it was a really good idea because it was a good way to express the dangers of vaping,” she said.

Even though school buildings were closed, the students still presented their video to two classes of fifth graders at Harmon Elementary School during their Zoom sessions with their teachers and then answered their questions.

“The fifth graders had great questions. Most of them had heard of vape, but didn’t know a whole lot about it,” she said, explaining that the eighth graders talked to the younger students about their experiences at Jefferson Middle School, giving them tips of what to say if they were offered a vaping product.

Vico said she wanted to set a good example for younger students. She doesn’t vape, she said, because she wants to stay healthy and continue to do all of the activities she likes to do, like bike riding, hanging out with her friends and playing the guitar.

She said that the coalition tried to share with the fifth graders other activities that they could do instead of vaping, including playing sports or music, or spending time with their family.

“We gave them some good ideas, gave them some new ways to say no to vaping,” Vico said. “I feel like they learned a lot more about how to be affirmative in their choices.”

She felt that it was important to teach incoming middle schoolers about the dangers of vaping so they don’t feel pressured to conform to be cool. Heading to Lakeview High School in the fall, Vico said she feels high school students know how to make better choices for themselves, but incoming middle schoolers haven’t been exposed to the same peer pressure.

“They know at ninth grade that vaping is very bad for you and that there are prominent health effects,” she said.

“They have all been offered vape throughout their middle school years and they talked about how they refused,” Gasperoni said. “It was very powerful. It gave the fifth graders a lot of tools heading into middle school.”

Bulski agreed.

“Our hope is that this opportunity gave the fifth graders a chance to hear a powerful message from the older students that using harmful substances such as vape is a choice, and that there are ways to choose not to partake even when other students are,” Bulski said. “We’re hoping (this) was a chance for the fifth graders to start practicing how to handle a situation when someone offers you something like a vape and to start having dialogue with their family about how they’ll handle that.”

Gasperoni said that she was so pleased with the students’ work that she wanted to treat them to a small surprise. It was with low expectations, however, that she reached out to the up and coming family pop rock band SM6, which the students follow on YouTube. Through their manager, however, the band said it was excited to treat the students with a surprise visit during a Zoom call.

“The kids didn’t know. It was a huge surprise for them,” Gasperoni said. “They talked to the band about what they had been doing and we showed the band their video.

“It was just a beautiful event. (It showed) how powerful youth can be with their actions ... and they can make a difference.”

Vico said she was “completely star struck” when SM6 came on the call.

“I was in shock. I had no words. It was, absolutely, the coolest thing ever,” she said. “It was cool to be able to talk to them personally and share our project with them. I’m thankful they could take the time out of their day to do that with us.”

Bulski said that she is confident that the JMS students will continue to carry on their message when they enter high school in the fall.

“The experience these seven students have had during this process has increased their confidence with making good choices for themselves, as well as being an advocate for good decision making among their peers,” she said. “Their leadership (is) invaluable to continuing to spread their message to their peers about not using vape, as well as other harmful substances.”

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