High school students frequently hear presentations on the tragedies that occur from drinking and driving. A Missouri-based organization is branching out to include the effects of drug abuse too.
Missouri Safe and Sober began in 2004 when a Springfield personal injury attorney saw both the daily pressures his children were facing and the stories of families affected by drunk driving and underage drinking, Development Director Angela Garrison said. He spoke at five Springfield schools with a PowerPoint presentation about having a safe and sober prom, giving each student a pledge card to sign saying they wouldn’t drink on prom night.
“Prom to graduation is the deadliest time of year for teens,” Garrison said by phone Wednesday. “Primarily alcohol and drunk driving accidents, but we’re also seeing drug use. Lots of partying goes on — prom, senior skip days, graduation, getting ready for summer.”
Soon he was presenting at 35 schools each spring. The program then turned into its current video-based form, providing free videos to high schools in Missouri. Garrison said 306 Missouri high schools have signed up for this spring. MSS also offers a middle school program which occurs with Red Ribbon Week in the fall. Garrison said 150 schools signed up last year.
According to Principal Wade Norton, Smith-Cotton High School has used Missouri Safe and Sober videos in conjunction with the school’s prom event and there are safe driving fliers hanging from MSS hanging in the hallways.
As the prom night focus has shifted to a wider scope of drunk driving and underage drinking, MSS has also widened the focus to drug abuse. Garrison said MSS decided to include drug abuse in its programming this year as they continued to hear students are using drugs more, even before, during and after school.
“Alcohol is still the No. 1 abused substance by young people. Every year we do focus groups, we talk to students going through high school, and we’re hearing from them this trend that kids are doing drugs, a lot of times more than drinking,” Garrison said. “It’s easier to get, cheaper, easier to hide, they’re doing it more regularly. Alcohol is the thing they do on weekends, drugs they do any time.
“We felt that we could no longer not include this education when we have a pipeline,” Garrison continued. “We’re in nearly half of high schools in Missouri, we felt almost an obligation.”
With such a positive response from schools who already used the first video, MSS is working on a video for the next school year with a focus on marijuana.
“We’re hearing from a lot of schools, ‘thank you, we’ve needed this.’” Garrison said. “Some schools say ‘drugs are a bigger problem than alcohol, we needed this education.’”
The drug program has a video about what drugs do to the body, but also how drugs can affect a person’s future.
“We interviewed HR professionals about if a student or adult has an alcohol violation in their teens, how does that affect employment,” Garrison explained. “We talked with professions a lot of students go into, teaching, military, law enforcement, health care. It’s been interesting to watch their reactions to that. We hear about overdoses, getting busted with drugs by cops, but what about your future?”
The video ends with an interview with the Williams family. Jessica Williams died at age 22 last February of a heroin overdose in her father’s Sedalia home. Her parents, Debbie Williams and Wayne Williams, and one of her friends, Ellen Sherman, filmed an eight-minute video with MSS. At times the video is heartbreaking to watch, such as when Wayne bursts into tears as he talks about finding Jessica in her room, or hearing Sherman and Debbie’s stories turn from happy memories to sad recollections of Jessica’s struggle with heroin.
Garrison said she heard about the sign in Wayne’s front yard on Broadway Boulevard last spring and she reached out to Wayne and Debbie because they were willing to be so public about Jessica’s story.
“A lot of times there is a stigma with drug use, they don’t want to talk about it,” Garrison said. “I can’t say that I blame them, but there’s a social stigma with it. They feel they’re all alone. When you talk to people, everyone has been touched by this in some way. I thought if they put a sign in their yard, they’re willing to tell her story, we have a platform we can use.”
Garrison added that Jessica’s age made the story relatable to high school students, as it can be hard to picture themselves as an adult.
“With Jessica being in college, once I met (Debbie and Wayne) and got to know about her, she was just a normal high school girl,” Garrison recalled. “For me, as a storyteller, it fit a lot of things we try to do with our stories at Safe and Sober.”
“Jessica’s story” has been shown in schools across the state. As the Williamses continue to speak out, more and more people are becoming more comfortable with talking about drug addiction.
“When all of this first came out, I started having people contact me and tell me their story of what they’ve gone through with their kids, and they’re like, ‘we don’t know what to do.’ They never told anybody before,” Debbie told the Democrat last month. “Now it’s OK to say, ‘my kid’s got a problem.’ … It takes away the stigma, you’re not a bad person because you become addicted to a drug.”
Garrison encouraged parents to have conversations at home to “close the loop … so they’re getting it from all angles.” She said parents can find resources at safeandsoberparents.com, which is being revamped to improve its offerings.
Schools can sign up for free to use the Missouri Safe and Sober videos. To sign up or to get more information, visit missourisafeandsober.com.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or on Twitter @NicoleRCooke.