August 21, 2013
When Brighton High School in Boston, Massachusetts, wanted to change student attitudes about drinking, they knew they had a lot of work to do to counteract perceptions that “everybody” was doing it. They decided to turn up the volume on more positive messages.
“At Brighton High School, the kids who are drinking are the most outspoken,” says EDC’s Ben Spooner. “Kids don’t hear, ‘I played Scrabble’ or ‘I studied this weekend.’ They hear, ‘I got blasted this weekend.’ Brighton High wants to combat the perception that everybody is using.”
In taking this on, Elizabeth Parsons of the Allston-Brighton Substance Abuse Task Force turned to the Massachusetts Technical Assistance Partnership for Prevention (MassTAPP), directed by EDC. The program supports communities and coalitions that receive state or federal government aid for substance abuse prevention. Pulling together experts from across the state, it offers expert training and technical assistance via in-person gatherings, one-to-one phone support, and online webinars.
Linking organizations working on the same issues can provide valuable support for change.
“We are a small agency with limited resources,” says Parsons. “Consulting with people familiar with the strategies and what works is a huge bonus. EDC gave us tips and resources to carry out these ideas and make these projects happen.”
Changing the culture
Brighton High is not alone in its campaign to reduce student drinking. Towns and cities across Massachusetts have made gains in preventing underage drinking, with fewer high school students reporting ever using alcohol. But there is more work to be done—a 2011 report on a survey of Bay State high school students revealed that 40 percent still use alcohol, and 22 percent engage in binge drinking.
With guidance from EDC and MassTAPP, the Allston-Brighton task force is helping students spread positive messages throughout the school’s hallways. They created a social norms campaign to put positive messages in front of teens, showing them the majority of their peers are not engaging in destructive behaviors.
The school held a social norms campaign around the theme “Majority Rules.” It included posters challenging students’ ideas about what “most people” do, stating such facts as “The majority (58 percent) of BHS students choose not to drink.” Positive messages were posted in areas frequented by students—including in the rest rooms via an aptly named newsletter The Stall Street Journal.
“Brighton High students are now seeing posters in the hallways and bathrooms with positive messages,” says Spooner. “The hope is over one or two years, perceptions will begin to change.”
EDC helped the task force create social media presences on Facebook and Twitter, along with online survey tools to gauge students’ reactions. The campaign culminated in a school fair with contests and prizes.
“EDC helped us develop online surveys to gather and evaluate data from students,” Parsons says. “Now we can track data on whether students perceive the messages as positive, message retention, and how to frame campaign messages throughout the year.”
Staying on track
MassTAPP and EDC connected Parsons with a visual artist for a quilt-making project in support of the Above the Influence campaign run by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The quilt, created by the Allston-Brighton task force’s youth coalition, includes panels created by students with their messages of what keeps them “above the influence” of drugs and alcohol. It’s hanging in the local YMCA and is another way the students are reminded of the positive messages.
Parsons hopes to work with MassTAPP and EDC to further engage the community in and around Brighton High School in promoting healthy choices. As students involved in past campaigns graduate, Parsons is training the next group of youth to carry forward the positive messages. She hopes to engage area colleges and businesses in the effort as well. Says Parsons, “EDC has opened up a lot of possibilities for us.”