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Tackling Substance Use Among Young People

Mr. Michael Courtney
December 29, 2022

For many years, high schools have employed a “one-off” strategy for educating their students about the dangers of substance use. They invite a guest speaker to address a grade or the entire school about the effects of engaging in drug or alcohol abuse; the message might resonate for a few hours, but the long term impact of such speakers provides mixed results. At the same time, high schools often use a “whack-a-mole” disciplinary approach, punishing a student here and there for engaging in illicit activity, again with inconclusive long-term results. In contrast to these two approaches, SAR High School is pursuing a public health model that connects us to other yeshiva high schools and to the parent community in order to help keep our impressionable teenagers safe.        

Back in 2019 and again in 2020, many Modern Orthodox Jewish high schools, predominantly from the New York/New Jersey metropolitan region, conducted a substance-use survey of yeshiva league sophomores and seniors. The assessment was conducted by Bach-Harrison, a nationally-known organization with experience in survey research. Questions included gathering evidence of teen smoking or vaping, drinking, marijuana use, and using prescription drugs not assigned to them. At the same time, the survey asked the students about their relationships with family members and adults in their lives to gauge correlation between substance use and positive adult influence.    

With data from these four grades (2019’s sophomores and seniors and 2020’s sophomores and seniors), Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal of SAR High School and Dean of Machon Siach, and Dr. Rivka Schwartz, Associate Principal of SAR High School, meticulously reviewed the results of these two Bach-Harrison Prevention Needs Assessment Youth Surveys. There were plenty of expected responses across the few thousand students and several startling ones, too. Notably, Modern Orthodox high school students engage in alcohol consumption at a rate considerably higher than the national average; at the same time, they are above the national average for religiosity but below the national average in antisocial behaviors like vaping and marijuana use.

The data showed us that our community had a problem and that the things we were doing to address it weren’t effective. But we had the good fortune to work with prevention-science researchers at the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington (funded by the National Institutes of Health), and they offered us an evidenced-based intervention that we now implement to address the problem. At the start of last year, SAR invested in planning a multi-school response, launching a pilot cohort of Guiding Good Choices (GGC). This five-class series, at two hours per class, equips parents to minimize family conflict and convey their values clearly to their children. 

At the core of GGC is the idea that children make healthy choices not because we’ve scared them about the dangers of drugs or threatened them with punishments but because they feel bonded to the adults in their lives and are motivated to align with these adults’ stated values. Guiding Good Choices offers parents tools to strengthen bonding by giving kids skills, opportunities to use those skills, and recognition for using them. When teens feel empowered and receive positive consequences for following expectations, they are more likely to adhere to these expectations and engage in healthy behaviors. 

The pilot cohort last spring was co-facilitated by SAR High School Nurse Russi Bohm, who shared in a prior Jewish Link article: “The program was such a success because, among other reasons, real-life sharing of experiences occurred among the group. We created a safe space where we could be honest and vulnerable with each other while sharing personal stories and anecdotes.” GGC is not a two-hour lecture; rather, it involves significant conversation among the participants, each of whom brings so much expertise from their years of parenting. A parent from that GGC cohort expressed, “I feel that this program is an absolute gift to families and really to our entire community.” 

         The Orthodox Union, impressed by this five-session parenting program, implemented “GGC Plus” cohorts with the Jewish communities of Houston and Cincinnati; the OU plans to expand its reach to many other cities as well. SAR completed its first of five cohorts for the 2022-2023 school year, and the second cohort is nearing its conclusion. SAR’s peers from the Yeshivah of Flatbush and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls likewise trained and launched their first cohorts this past semester, with Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School initiating their GGC series in the coming months. 

It has been invigorating to partner with our professional colleagues across the metro NY area and beyond since we share important goals, most notably helping our teenagers make healthy decisions. We also believe it is time to return to surveying our sophomores and seniors. Our data are three years old and need refreshing; beyond that, the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed substance use habits.  The results of the 2019 and 2020 surveys were essential to increasing our understanding of the choices our students make; the data from 2023, however, will be even more pertinent to addressing current realities. 

For example, since the pandemic, has the use of alcohol consumption or other antisocial behaviors risen among our students? We hypothesize that, with the widespread legalization of online gambling, there has been heightened wagering on cell phones, significantly impacting our youth far beyond the familiar fantasy football leagues or March Madness brackets, and survey data will help us better understand our students’ lives and plan our programming around our students’ needs. The role of observant Judaism in a student’s life may have also been altered as a result of Covid-19, and the survey instrument we use adds religion-specific questions to the Prevention Needs Assessment Youth Survey.  We are thankful that 16 Modern Orthodox high schools are partnering to offer this survey in February.  

         As the Talmud profoundly states in Shavuot 39a, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh;” all of Israel are responsible for one another. What better example to our youth can there be than a community-wide partnership to assist our teenagers in bonding with their parents and making healthy decisions?

Mr. Michael Courtney

Mr. Michael Courtney

Michael Courtney has been a member of the College Counseling team since 2007. He also leads the school’s Senior Exploration project and coaches the JV Boys Basketball and Varsity Softball teams. He co-chairs the school’s and yeshiva high school Guiding Good Choices.

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