By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 27, 2006
At a National Catholic Educational Association workshop, Jeff Ferguson challenged educators to acknowledge that every teenager faces pressure to consume alcohol and drugs, and to be proactive in supporting youth to make the right choice for their personal and physical growth and be completely “chemical free” throughout high school.
Ferguson, the associate dean of students at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., along with religion teacher Bill Vance, declared in the workshop that every Catholic high school has a problem with alcohol and drug abuse. They reported Minnesota Survey of High Schools’ statistics from 2004 that 60.4 percent of seniors in the past year had used alcohol and 62 percent of ninth-graders said that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem for youth. Another 2004 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that three-fourths of high school seniors report having consumed alcohol before and two-thirds of 10th-graders had also. In addition, young people ages 12 to 17 who do drink have an average of four to five drinks per occasion. The Institute also reports that people drinking under age 15 are four times as likely to develop alcohol dependency as adults at some point. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that adolescents are also vulnerable to alcohol-induced brain damage, as the brain is still developing into the early 20s.
Ferguson, who is also head football coach who has led his team to two state championships in the past three years, believes that chemical abuse must be addressed head on and continually since the problem of underage drinking is an ever-present issue for youth.
“They need to be challenged to be chemical free more than once, all the time. Students are expected to be chemical free, but are not really supported much in doing it.”
He believes that many teens who may only consume an occasional beer at a party are “good kids” and faithful Catholics, but asserted that they cannot be leaders if they go with the flow and even take one sip of alcohol, which involves some form of law-breaking.
“We emphasize the importance of the simple fact that all we’re doing is upholding the law and developing positive leadership skills. You can’t call yourself a leader if you have an occasional beer and break the law. It’s pretty tough not to lie,” he said. “We’re trying to promote self-respect and integrity.”
He described the successful “Positive Peer Leadership Program” he established at his school in 1996 and encouraged attendees to consider what more they can add to existing programs to help kids say no to temptation and yes to their future as they build their self-respect and self-esteem.
“My opinion is that having a chemical-free behavior lifestyle has to be a non-negotiable to be in a leadership group. That has to be foundational,” he said. “I think all Catholic schools have to continue to research and look for ways to help students avoid using chemicals in a proactive way rather than being reactive. We have to help them.”
While teens in Catholic high schools are much less likely to consume illegal substances, which often leads to an increase in other at-risk behaviors, this veteran educator with two high-school aged children believes the pressure and temptation they face is not much different from those in public schools.
“Kids can be actively involved in campus ministry and still want to party and have an occasional beer. They are two separate things.”
He saw one too many students showing up intoxicated for a school game or with marijuana in their pocket, which lead him to begin their leadership program. At his school the yearly alcohol prevention lecture was far from enough.
“We deal with chemical issues on a regular basis.”
He’s observed that there are the “weekend warriors,” experimenters and occasional partiers in schools, as well as the non-drinkers and the large middle group of people who are not users but can be swayed into becoming users out of a desire to have fun, be accepted or feel cool. Your average Joe or Mary can show up at a party with a case of beer and find “they can become popular overnight.”
“It seemed to me we were usually dealing with them after the fact. It didn’t seem we were doing a lot proactively, other than occasionally having a motivational assembly or parent orientation meeting,” he recalled. “We wanted to provide a positive example for that middle group to follow.”
Ferguson began by inviting student leaders from various school extracurricular groups, ranging from sports to academic groups, whom teachers identified as being or having the potential to be chemical free, to join the group. All 30 accepted the invitation to join.
“Kids really want high expectations, and all they want is support for those high expectations.”
The program now involves four staff members and about 170 “strong” students out of 1,000 students in the high school, who pledge to remain chemical free throughout high school and who attend Friday morning meetings before school.
Religion teacher Vance became involved about four years ago and explained that meetings will typically involve a prayer, lesson, group activity and discussion, such as on servant leadership in the spirit of Blessed Mother Teresa. “It charges their leadership batteries and empowers them.”
He believes the group now transcends stereotypes and attracts all types of students, from the chess club participant to the jock, while not making those not joining feel alienated.
Some students are also trained to educate younger children on prevention efforts such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs. Vance explained that each student’s parents must attend an orientation meeting with their child each year of participation, to ensure that both parent and youth are committed. At the meeting they address common attitudes that don’t fly with their mission, such as that it’s better for parents to take away the car keys of their children and let them and their friends drink in safety at home and off the road. They also offer some fundraisers for charities and social events, and club members agree not to attend functions with alcohol.
Ferguson, who has worked in education for 26 years, believes it’s changed the culture of the school. “If students make the commitment, they have to be chemical free in high school and can’t attend illegal events with chemicals and have to strive to be positive role models and leaders.”
And their courageous, healthy choice helps others outside the group to do likewise.
“It challenges them to make positive choices for the betterment of themselves and their community,” Ferguson believes.
In a testimony, one student said it’s helped her to be happy with herself and the best person she can be and not hindered by drug and alcohol use. She has learned not to pre-judge others, and to stand up for her friends who don’t belong to the group.
While they’ve rarely learned of a student who violates the pledge, Ferguson believes the “vast majority” participating don’t use chemicals. He added that leaders, whether quiet or gregarious, are those who are true to their values and take the courageous path in their journey of faith and self-discovery.
“Students don’t necessarily have to speak a lot to be a leader. There are quiet leaders. Don’t confuse the loud person for the strong person. There’s an awful lot of quiet strength in your school. Help kids to be leaders and role models and to feel good about themselves.”
Ferguson is also concerned as a parent about alcohol use among youth, whose bodies are still growing and who are more likely to develop abuse problems as adults if they start consuming under age 15. He wants his children to excel academically, but most importantly he wants them to “be safe and happy and to develop moral fiber.”
In the audience, many raised their hands as having peer leadership type groups but few had chemical-free commitment components.
Dominican Sister Margaret Andrew of John Carroll High School in Birmingham, Ala., was impressed with the program and how as an extracurricular activity it supports youth in carrying their values out of the classroom and integrating them into their social life.
“Lots of time young people don’t really integrate that well,” she said.
The theology teacher also liked how it involved parents. “The more you have them involved with adolescents the more communication will go on. It’s a holistic approach,” she said.
And students can influence each other, she added.
“If they are talking with students about imprudence of destructive decisions they listen to one another more than to us.”
She said that at her school she approaches one of the guidance counselors if a student appears to have a problem. She appreciated the forthright approach to addressing the issue even in Catholic schools.
“You have got drug and alcohol problems in your school,” she said. “We don’t really want to address it or not much … (but) it impacts kids who aren’t users … and it’s major.”