Silly costumes, funky colors and a sea of red are washing over Gainesville and Hall County schools this week and next, as students across the area just say no to using drugs.
A national celebration, the Red Ribbon Week campaign is the oldest and largest drug prevention program in the United States.
“It began several years back ... commemorating the death of a law enforcement officer in his work related to drug prevention,” said JP Banks, director of the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County. “They decided at that point to use the red ribbons. The parents of the young people today would remember wearing red ribbons.”
Since its early years, the program has evolved as an opportunity to showcase drug-free prevention efforts.
Both the Drug Free Coalition and Center Point are providing wrist bracelets to students, with statements on them to remind the wearer that “a healthy me is drug free” and to rise “above the influence.”
Banks said last year was the first that bracelets were distributed, creating a positive reaction.
“I saw kids wearing them months later,” he said. “I think (the bracelets carry) the message forward. Students are not going to wear something they don’t identify with at some level.”
Schools are celebrating in their own ways, mostly encouraging students to dress up over this week and next to draw attention to their drug-free status. For example, some schools are going with a “sock it to drugs” theme, letting students wear crazy or mismatched socks. Another theme has students dressing up in their dream career outfit, showcasing that people can do anything they set their mind to by keeping drugs out of the equation.
The national Red Ribbon Week continues through Tuesday, though some schools aren’t beginning their celebrations until next week. It generally takes place the last full week of October.
Center Point, a nonprofit center serving Gainesville and Hall County with mentorship and counseling services, is bringing Sgt. AnMarie Martin with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Chris Sandy of Enduring Regret to speak with middle school students.
Martin has been going into schools over the past few weeks, while Sandy will speak at several of the middle schools next week about his experience of drinking and driving. According to the Enduring Regret website, as a drunken driver he was responsible for the deaths of two people. Currently on parole until 2031, he now shares his story at various events across the country.
“Statistics from the Georgia Student Health Survey are showing that youth who drink are reporting that they start in seventh grade,” said Judy Brownell, prevention coordinator for Center Point. “So we really are trying to focus on that age group to impress upon them the importance of staying safe and not drinking underage.”
For the 2012-2013 school year, 237 Gainesville City students from sixth grade through 12th grade reported alcohol usage in the 30 days before taking the survey. Forty-seven of those were middle school students.
Nearly 2,000 said they did not drink in that same 30 days.
In the Hall County school system, 981 students said they had used alcohol, with 157 of those in middle school. Nearly 8,000 said they had not had alcohol in that 30-day time period.
The numbers were similar in tobacco and other drug use, a trend both Brownell and Banks confirmed.
“The perception might be that all of our kids are doing drugs, where in reality most of the students in Hall County do not drink and do not do drugs,” Banks said. “I think that’s important for people to hear. The reality is the majority of our students choose to make healthy choices.”