Lenape district to host ‘Defy the Issue’ in Medford

In an effort to further the region-wide drug and alcohol abuse awareness initiative — Defy the Issue — Lenape Regional High School and the Medford Township school districts will host a meeting for Medford Township and Medford Lakes parents and students in grades 6 through 8 on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at Shawnee High School Auditorium.

In a show of support and to encourage attendance at the meeting, Medford Youth Athletic Association cancelled all evening events on Feb. 8 and the staff of YMCA Camp Ockanickon will provide free childcare for children in preschool through grade 5 during the meeting.

Chris Heilig, assessment, accountability and planning coordinator for Lenape Regional High School District, said Defy the Issue started with outgoing Superintendent Emily Capella two years ago. She wrote a letter asking the community to partner with the school district to address alcohol and drug abuse with teens.

“We have a problem, and the only way to conquer that problem is to work together,” Heilig said, noting the program has received a “great response.”

He said the school district has met with law-enforcement officials, area superintendents, principals, parents, recreation department chairs and municipal alliance chairs.

Those groups brainstormed and got students involved in the program.

“And that’s when things really took off,” Heilig said. “The student voice really played a big part in Defy the Issue. It really came from the students.”

The first student group to organize under the Defy the Issue umbrella was the “Drug Squad” at Seneca High School. It is made up of students who vow to be substance abuse free and spread the word that is OK to be such.

Heilig also said the students came up with the Defy the Issue logo and stickers.

Shawnee students have a similar group called the “Life Squad,” which addresses the transition from middle school to high school for students.

Heilig said incidents of abuse is down “drastically” since Defy the Issue started, noting that one student who abuses drugs or alcohol is one too many.

Around the time Defy the Issue started, district officials looked into teen substance abuse.

“We found that almost 40 to 50 percent of those arrested were adolescents,” Heilig said, noting the health and wellness of students is part of the school district’s mission.

He said the Defy the Issue logo can now be found everywhere in the district.

“So we feel that it’s catching on,” Heilig said. “The main thing is sustaining that success.”

The event on Feb. 8 will provide details about Defy the Issue, a community coalition that includes Evesham, Medford, Medford Lakes, Mount Laurel, Shamong, Southampton, Tabernacle and Woodland. The coalition launched a campaign this school year to educate families and residents in the Lenape Region about the dangers of risky behavior and provide support for young people by empowering them to defy the pressure to experiment with and use drugs and alcohol.

“Defy the Issue came out of months of brainstorming and meetings among educators, parents and, most important, students who face choices about risky behaviors, often when they are as young as 10 years old,” Lenape Regional High School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Carol Birnbohm said. “Students played a key role in planning this initiative, and a meeting like the one on Feb. 8 gives us an opportunity to not only share the message, but keep them engaged.”

Recently released results of a long-term study of young adults and their behavior, Monitoring the Future, found children are exposed to fewer and fewer anti-drug messages than their predecessors (www.monitoringthefuture.org).

Speaking on behalf of the Defy the Issue coalition, Superintendent of Medford Township School District Joseph DelRossi said that is not the case for students in the Lenape region.

“The first step in resolving any type of problem or challenge is to clearly identify it,” DelRossi said. “This program will afford our students and parents the opportunity to hear directly from key stakeholders. It is my hope that all middle school students and their parents attend this most important meeting. It is a community based challenge that can only be resolved by us collectively working together.”

“Substance abuse and risky behavior among young people knows no socioeconomic or cultural boundaries,” Capella said. “This is a challenging issue of grave concern to educators and families. Defy the Issue begins with frank, two-way discussions, but the ultimate goal is to empower each child to make positive choices in middle school, high school and life.”

As host of the Feb. 8 meeting, Shawnee High School Principal Matt Campbell is eager to meet Medford Township and Medford Lakes students and their parents.

“This is another opportunity for us to share the mission and culture of Shawnee High School with students who will enter the school within the next few years,” Campbell said. “Defy the Issue is a key part of our culture and I look forward to a lively discussion.”