Sarah Morgan-Lee is a science and math teacher at Fundy High School. She also works with the school’s Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) group.
“Our name is our mission,” she said.
The group consists of 20 students, ranging from grades 9 to 12, as well as different members of the school’s staff and professional health practitioners. Their goal is to promote and support tobacco-free living at school and in the community.
After an extracurricular fair last fall where the different groups of the school were promoted, Sarah says the interest in SWAT was instant.
“The kids want information, but they also want to help their peers. They bring us incidents of smoking which they have witnessed, but also concerns on issues like second-hand smoke at home. From the very beginning, it’s been overwhelming.”
Sarah says the group has different categories of activities, ranging from education and prevention, community awareness, or a cessation group. This started a discussion on the creation of the SWAT group due to the questions and curiosity of the students, especially when topics such as vaping were brought up.
“We knew there was a great need for education. We had a workshop with health care partners who spoke to the group. The kids then stepped forward with their questions and their passion. It’s an issue their concerned about.”
Sarah said it wasn’t hard to get the attention of the students and also the other teachers as school due to the community-oriented focus of Fundy High School.
“We ran surveys, which led to reaching out to students who smoke, but were also interested in quitting. It’s tricky, because it’s a very personal and confidential issue. We worked hard to make sure students felt safe when they asked for help.”
Tobacco education is also part of the physical education program, which is mandatory for students from grades 6 to 10.
Students who smoke can now visit the school’s nurse, as well as the physical education teachers, who provide them with individual help. Sarah says several kids are now on their way to being smoke-free.
The group also extends its impact beyond the classrooms by addressing smoking within their families and community.
“45% of the student population are exposed to second-hand smoke to some degree at home. Kids are concerned about this. We drafted a letter during the first semester last year which talks about this statistic, and outlines the dangers of second-hand smoke. It’s one of the first things we did to reach out to families.”
“It’s the students who come up with the ideas. They’re a very vocal group. They see students smoking or family members struggling with the addiction, and they want to do something about it.”
To generate momentum at school, the group created a pledge board. By signing it, students agreed to be tobacco and smoke-free.
“I’ve talked to graduates of the school and several of them said they signed a board like that in the past. When they were confronted with tobacco, it made them stop and think about the choices they were about to make. It had an impact.”
Sarah explains the program needed to be comprehensive and personal to be successful.
“Initiatives like the SWAT group happen all the time. I didn’t want to have kids to be passionate about the issue, but not also be informed about the pitfalls. Meanwhile, our students who are suffering with the addiction want help. They’ve got themselves in this situation, and they’re looking for a life raft. It’s hard to step up and grab it.”
“It’s not about provincial or Canadian statistics. As a teacher, you look at these kids in the face every day. We’re not in the business of sending kids out. We’re in the business of keepings kids here. It’s very tricky to punish someone for an addiction that they have. We need to offer them support and help.”
Sarah stresses the importance of the kids themselves, who are energizing the school’s staff, the health care partners and the administration in the fight against tobacco.
“There’s a particular cohort in Grade 9 which is very community-minded and socially active. Some students in Grade 12 are very interested in health care. Others are just sick of seeing their parents struggle. We’re working against tobacco, but as educators we’re also developing leaders within the group.”
The group will continue their work next year. While the students plan on maintaining their momentum and drive, they also want to work with the middle school level on prevention.
“There’s a change in Grade 8 in regards to the students’ attitude towards tobacco. It’s not a newsflash or finger wagging. Prevention is key. We want to help them with refusal skills. It’s all about navigating the terrain of adolescence.”
Published in May 2017.
By Jean-Étienne Sheehy – NBATC Communications Coordinator.