A local organization put together a far-reaching effort to educate Johnson County students about the dangers of nicotine, alcohol and other substances.
Red Ribbon Week, an effort by Empower Johnson County, reached a record 11,000 students from 21 county schools across all six districts this year. The October event was more hands-off than in other years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Michelle McMahon, community coordinator for Empower Johnson County.
“We did everything digitally because of COVID,” McMahon said. “We had social media posts they could use, a parent newsletter could be sent out and video and voice recordings. We had a script for morning announcements. It’s something different each day. It’s a different substance and talking about healthy decision making.”
During previous years, schools would bring in presenters. Center Grove, for example, brought in law enforcement and their dogs to discuss building relationships with police and reporting when they see students using vaping devices to an anonymous reporting line, she said.
Red Ribbon Week is focused on the elementary school level while National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, which takes place from March 22 to 28, centers around middle and high school students.
For Red Ribbon Week, each day had a different theme with students wearing different colors to correspond, McMahon said.
“On the Monday, we had ‘Proud to be Drug Free’ red kick off. On Wednesday is was ‘Drugs Can’t Find Me’ camo day. There were costumes on Friday. It’s different at each of the schools. A lot of schools did a pledge. We did a banner for the week, and a lot of students were signing saying, ‘we’re going to remain drug-free and make healthy decisions.’”
At the elementary level, it’s important to discuss the effects of nicotine and alcohol on health and brain development, especially since students might see people in their household drinking or smoking, she said.
“We’re targeting elementary school because it’s what they might be seeing in their life,” McMahon said. “For a second grader, it’s possible they have someone in their family who does vape. We talk about safety for one. We don’t want them to drink or ingest them, or pick it up and vape themselves. We talk about nicotine addiction, which is the number one reason why people continue to use nicotine devices. We talk about brain development and the health of the body and lungs, and what happens if you choose to vape or smoke.”
It is also key for parents to have conversations with their children about staying substance-free, she said.
“Parents have conversations with youth on substances, and tobacco is included with that. We’ve collaborated with Tobacco Free Johnson County,” McMahon said. “We hit a host of substances: alcohol, tobacco, vaping devices and marijuana. At the core, it’s about having a positive environment and healthy decision making. We’re asking parents to have that conversation with their kids.”
Empower Johnson County is also surveying the community. The survey includes questions about how much of a concern underage drinking and vaping are among Johnson County youth, as well as which substances are of most concern in the community.
So far, the efforts are paying off, McMahon said.
“The rates are still very low,” McMahon said. “Most of our youth are making the decision not to use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs before age 21.”
The organization is asking area adults to fill out a survey on Johnson County youth substance use at: