“Arlington, Virginia is a small county of 27 square miles,” said the Teen Network Board’s youth outreach coordinator Siobhan Grayson, “although we are small, we are at the center of the DMV area, right next door to Washington, D.C. and bordering the counties/cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church. We have a very eclectic community, from our bustling urban centers such as Ballston and Pentagon city, to our quiet neighborhoods. The population of Arlington County is about 230,000 people and is growing. Arlington is known for its amazing school programs and the supportive positive outcomes for students in the community.
“The Teen Network Board was developed by the Partnership for Children, Youth and Families (APCYF) in 2002,” said Grayson. “Our main purpose is having a teen led commission that strives to strengthen the teen voice in the community, provide a teen perspective, and motivate teens overall to get involved in our community. The Teen Network Board also offers leadership and advocacy skills all infused with community service.
“We are facing a rise of electronic vaping devices being used in our middle schools and especially our high schools,” said Grayson. “We also struggle with social norms with parents normalizing and minimalizing youth drug and alcohol use in return for good grades. Our community has created a very competitive environment educationally and, to some extent, socially. One of our main focuses with the Teen Network Board structure is drug and alcohol prevention. We have a sub-committee that focuses on awareness campaigns and local data to guide projects and events for the youth in our community.
“One of our most popular events is ‘Myth-busters,’” said Grayson. “We go into all the middle schools’ health classes in the county. The panel of teens has the objective to be in dialog with the 8th grade students as a window into their transition to high school the following year. We talk about myths that involve day to day high school life, consent, how to get involved in the community and (pro)tips & tricks to make their middle school to high school transitions a little less scary. Most importantly, we discuss drug and alcohol use in high school. Key topics include the use of data (⅔ Arlington teens do not participate in drugs or alcohol misuse.), situational information and national data on how the misuse of drugs and alcohol can impact students’ academics, sports and social life. The 8th graders get to ask any questions they want, which sometimes leads to very open and honest discussion about the realness (and fun) of high school. This serves as an opportunity to eliminate or subdue the stress and anxiety that incoming high schoolers are subject to.
“At the beginning, we were only able to conduct this program at two of the six middle schools in the county,” said Grayson. “We used local data (YRBS, Asset Survey and the Your Voice Matters survey), to determine what youth were reporting as stressors and the resulting behaviors of that stress. It is an event that both the teachers and 8th graders look forward to experiencing. We found champions in the physical education classes who felt like this was an important way for youth to hear from other teens about substance misuse and the aspect of high school that they may not know about. The main attraction is the teen led panels and the exchange of relatable information that the teens share. There is also the ability to be in dialog with the students, not maintaining a lecture structure. This gives both groups of students more of an opportunity to be open and get comfortable confronting these issues among themselves. To prepare for this event, the teens who run the conversation must go through a mandatory training. This is to ensure they have the most up to date the information and best practice facilitation skills when talking about these heavy topics. The panel in this event is open to all high schoolers if they receive the mandatory training. We are very proud that Myth-busters sessions are now an annual event at every middle school!
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to your own community and to change tactics as needed,” said Grayson. “Information moves so quickly, along with trends in types of drugs and brands of alcohol nowadays that its key to keep up. The more you engage with the youth, adults, and allies of your community, the brighter the future is in developing an educated and involved generation.
“Although the youth in our coalition might be young, that does not define the amount of impact they can have in our communities,” said Grayson. “It is important to keep our coalitions youth led and adult supported, so they can be more focused on interacting with their peers. Youth voice is not a trend, it is the answer!”