COLUMBIA — 'U Matter' is the new message that Columbia Public Schools is sharing with middle, junior high and high school students through its latest substance abuse prevention campaign being launched this week.
The kick-off week comes two years after the school board established the Substance Abuse Task Force to investigate better ways to fight student drug and alcohol use. After a year of work, the group submitted a list of recommendations that included adding school resource officers to middle and junior high schools, as well as creating a cohesive prevention program for the district, said Kristyn Wright, a communications specialist for the district who helped organize the U Matter campaign.
Because of budget cuts throughout the district, the U Matter substance abuse prevention campaign has no budget; sponsorship from local businesses are used to keep the program running.
The U Matter campaign arose from a need for uniformity in all schools in the district. Previously, each school had its own method of teaching students drug and alcohol awareness.
In the past, Hickman and Rock Bridge High Schools have worked closely with the MU Wellness Resource Center to raise awareness about wearing a seat belt, smoking and alcohol use. Reality Week and Here's How It Is are two examples of programs the schools have implemented to promote healthy decision making.
The U Matter program now refocuses efforts to include younger students in middle and junior high schools. The need to include this age group developed because this is the time when young people begin to experiment more with risky behavior, Wright said. Pamphlets with advice about prevention and warning signs of drug abuse will be mailed to parents to help them get involved.
Building familiarity with consistent looking and sounding messages is a key device to educating young people, Wright said. The campaign's Web site, posters and other promotional material have a distinct and colorful comic book feel. This way, program organizers hope students will be exposed to a recognizable theme.
The messages in the campaign are based on the social norming theory. Social norming means that students think smoking, drinking, fighting and other risky behavior is far more prevalent than it actually is. Students are likely to overestimate the number of their peers who smoke cigarettes.
"Ninety-two percent of Columbia Public Schools high school students think drinking alcohol is harmful or risky," is an example of how social norming is used by the district on their posters. This and other statistics were compiled from the statewide Safe and Drug Free Survey given to all ninth, 10th and 11th graders taking a physical education course. The information is narrowed down by district for Columbia-specific data.
"We are trying to show them the actual, true picture," said Tiffany Bowman, project coordinator at the MU Wellness Resource Center.
This week started off with ice cream sandwiches at the schools, and Thursday assemblies are organized at the middle and junior high schools. Other ways to engage students are live voting for their favorite basketball shot on the new U Matter Web site, umatter.us. Also on the Web site is a calendar of teen-appropriate activities to provide safe and healthy options for students.
Future plans for the group include changing the poster messages in schools every six to eight weeks and a public service announcement contest, Wright said. This will be the second year for the PSA contest, and student winners will have their 30-second message broadcast on KOMU and Channel 16. MU athletics coaches Mike Anderson and Gary Pinkel, as well as MU Athletic Director Mike Alden, filmed PSAs that will premiere at this weekend's Providence Bowl between Hickman and Rock Bridge.
Eventually, U Matter plans to incorporate Columbia elementary schools in the program. Messages would be altered to be more age appropriate, such as eating vegetables and wearing bicycle helmets, Wright said.