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Teens getting the word out: Defy drugs

Hundreds of students from middle and high schools who are members of an anti-drug club met recently to learn how to carry their message to other teens.

Miami Herald, Febrary 8, 2007

BY LAURA MORALES
llmorales@MiamiHerald.com

Shiquita Owens, a junior at Booker T. Washington High, can only get so far from what she calls the ''negativity'' of the illicit drug trade.

It's tough, because the dope, bullets and shady characters are never more than a few feet from her home in Overtown.

''There's drug dealers everywhere,'' said the 16-year-old. ``I hate it.''

Fortunately she has DFYIT, a countywide club whose young members pledge to stay off drugs, even submitting to occasional drug testing.

''It helps me to escape that situation,'' Shiquita said.

Shiquita was joined by more than 470 high school students last week in a youth summit organized by DFYIT, an acronym for Drug-Free Youth In Town.

Students representing chapters from 21 high schools participated in the summit, including American, Coral Reef, Edison, Corporate Academy North and South, Southridge, Coral Gables, Hillel, Felix Varela and Palmetto.

The two-day summit, held at Signature Gardens in Kendall, also featured a similar event Thursday for the county's middle school-based DFYIT chapters. In all, DFYIT has chapters in 63 Miami-Dade middle and high schools.

The summit featured a visit from Laura-Ashley Overdyke, project manager for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who spoke to the teens about exerting positive peer pressure on their friends.

She also spoke about her office's latest teen-geared ad campaign, dubbed ``Above the Influence.''

The campaign represents an evolution of sorts for anti-drug messages, Overdyke noted. Nancy Reagan's ''Just Say No!'' campaign, aimed at young children, debuted in the 1980s.

Then came Partnership for a Drug-Free America's fried egg analogy (''This is your brain on drugs'') and a memorable father-son confrontation (``I learned it from watching YOU, Dad!''), spawning many parodies.

Overdyke told the students that the Above the Influence campaign aims to create messages that better resonate with teens, and is focused on being less ''anti-drug'' and more, as she noted, ``pro-me.''

On all the tables in the room were postcards featuring two Above the Influence ads. One showed a girl with 10-foot-long arms, stretched by the pull of peer pressure. The other showed an upward-pointing arrow scattering the letters in the word ``pressure.''

''This gets the message across better than Just Say No,'' Overdyke said. ``It's nonjudgmental. There are no pointing fingers, no giving orders, and the message [is] that any teenager can do this.''

Students participated in a ''Social Marketing Challenge,'' wherein they created ads for dissemination not just through the usual channels of TV, radio and magazines, but through popular websites such as FaceBook and MySpace.

The high-schoolers worked in teams to create mock social marketing campaigns to promote DFYIT's mission. They pretended to be a public relations firm with DFYIT as its client.

Luis Aguilar, an employee of ThinkInk Communications, DFYIT's actual PR firm, and Tim Pedersen, an employee of Right Brain Branding Consultants, spoke to the teens.

''What we're doing is changing the tone of drug abuse awareness education,'' Aguilar told them. ''Who here uses MySpace?'' he asked.

More than half the teens raised their hands.

''That's a good place to put your message,'' he said.

The students from Homestead's Corporate Academy South chose ''Crack is Wack'' as their slogan. They devised a campaign to illustrate what addicts have to sell to get crack: things stolen from relatives, friends and strangers, and sometimes their souls, bodies and even children.

''We can put the ads on bus benches, milk cartons and post offices, and also send text messages,'' said senior Crystal Brooks, 18, and a three-year member of DFYIT.

Seventeen-year-old Calvin Cortes, a senior at Palmetto and president of the school's DFYIT chapter, said he is trying to persuade a friend to join the club.

''She's having very serious problems. She's doing coke and prescription drugs,'' he said while fellow students at his table worked on the group's ''You have a voice, it's your choice'' campaign.

Cortes also said that, while a DFYIT meeting at Palmetto used to have about 15 people, now it can include up to 50.

Groups who manage to enact their campaigns in their schools and communities will be recognized at DFYIT's awards ceremony at the end of the school year.

''These students have the power to make incredible changes,'' said DFYIT executive director Barbara Zohlman after the event. ``It says a lot about them, we often don't give them enough credit.''