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Dodge Middle School puts peer pressure to good use

Peer pressure, it seems, can work both ways.

Most of the time, when the term "peer pressure" is tossed out, it has a negative connotation. One that might involve one young teen trying his first swig of beer or taking her first hit of marijuana while another, older teen stands by, encouraging the action.

It's labeled as a way teens get caught up in making bad decisions.

But that's not always the case.

Take last week at Dodge Middle School, when a group of 50-some eighth grade students set out to influence other teens to stay away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco. They called it Red Ribbon Week. By the end of the week, the peer pressure came in the form of positive reinforcement, and 630 DMS students pledged to stay chemical free.

The Red Ribbon Week planners put in plenty of time on the project. They made posters that lined the school hallways. They got bracelets to sell to raise funds for the New Connections treatment program in Hastings.

They even went into the classrooms during Tiger Time and spoke about ways their classmates could make healthy choices and stay away from drugs and alcohol.

One of the biggest things they encouraged classmates to find was a safe place -- somewhere quiet, somewhere that felt safe. For team member Savanna Wick, that place is her bedroom. It's warm. It's comfortable. It's somewhere she can go to just think things through when she's stressed out.

"A safe place is somewhere to go and think about what's right and what's wrong. I think that's a big part of it, too," Wick said. "You have to have a place to go to figure that out."

But the students also talked to their peers about other things they could do to stay away from chemicals -- things like playing sports, getting involved in organizations, playing music and so on.

Student advocate Lisa Lippold and health teacher Deb Weimelt are the advisors to the team. When it comes to developing this program, it was a case of great minds thinking alike, because both of them had heard about the program. And both of them thought it would be a great thing to launch at Dodge Middle School. It turns out, they were both right.

The week was so successful, Lippold and Weimelt asked the students if they would like to form a Red Ribbon club at the school. The students were more than willing.

The plan is to hold monthly meetings. The group will figure out more activities to promote a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle among students. The members will probably go into the sixth grade classrooms and start sharing the positive messages with the younger students. And then, they'll hope that when they move on to the high school, the younger students will age up and take on the same goal.

To put it into perspective, the Red Ribbon Week activities -- and the subsequent club that is being formed -- is something like the DARE drug and alcohol education programs that were popular during the 1990s. The eighth graders who joined the Red Ribbon crew didn't know what the DARE program was, but they did understand that drugs and alcohol are not healthy.

Alex Poirier is one of the kids who has stepped up in the program. His reasoning is simple -- his father was an alcoholic for much of his life. He knew how destructive alcohol abuse could be, and he wants to do all he can to make positive choices, and help his friends and peers make good choices, too.

Then there's Izzy Rosa, who sees the importance of making the right decisions for herself.

"I know some people who do drugs and I don't want to make that mistake. I want to make some positive choices," Rosa said.

DMS students were encouraged to sign a pledge during the Red Ribbon Week, but they weren't forced. Wick said, the student group didn't even push their own friends to join. That's the point.

"This is all about making your own choices, not doing something because your friends are. It's not like you're going to be criticized or bullied for doing it or not doing it. It was just your own choice," she said.