As graduation day closes in, Riley Tobin thinks back to those first impressionable days of high school.
“When I was going into Grade 8, there were a few positive role models that were in Grade 12,” said the 17-year-old Tobin who is headed to the University of Lethbridge this fall.
“I liked being around them and I want to give that back to the Grade 8s this year if I can.”
Tobin won’t be leaving Porter Creek Secondary School the same way he found it. He sits on the school’s drug-sniffing dog and Be the Change committees, groups that have spurred a new atmosphere in the school, he said.
For his effort, Tobin received the RCMP’s Peter Greenlaw Award last week.
“We have a very good choice with Riley Tobin,” said principal Kerry Huff. “He’s going to go far and he’s a great role model. But he’s one of the whole lot. I think kids get a bad rap and kids are basically a very good group.”
Huff has been working in education for 30 years and been a principal for eight. Every new crop of students needs to be inspired by their peers, he said.
“We can put all the programs in the world into our school to try and teach kids what we want them to learn,” he said. “But without some good positive role models showing them that it’s OK and it’s cool, behavior isn’t going to change because we want it to or because we tell them it should.”
“They need to see that it can work.”
Given the ever-widening selection of drugs and other illicit substances available to youth, students and other social justice advocates who oppose such things need to be more imaginative in pitching a different approach.
“I think what’s available (to adolescents) on both sides of the spectrum has changed considerably,” said Huff. “The amount of things that they can get into that aren’t necessarily positive has grown and become more severe, and the opportunities to make the other choice have also increased.”
“I don’t think the nature of adolescence has changed a great deal, just the trouble they could get into if they choose to.”
When it comes to drugs, peer pressure can make it hard for a youth to make a good, rational decision.
So Tobin’s strategy is to use peer pressure for good, steering youth toward a something positive.
For example, he worked on a committee to bring a drug-sniffing dog to school.
“We’ll never eliminate drugs in our schools because there will always be kids who choose to do that,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but they choose to do that. But whatever they choose to do, the new kids that come to school are being exposed to all that and I think that if they’re exposed (to drugs) they’re more prone to try it.”
Drug usage has dropped during the past two years, he said.
“I used to smell marijuana in the main hall all the time and now you never see that anymore,” said Tobin.
By exposing the risks of drugs, students may open their mind to other options.
“Maybe go to the gym instead of going out for a smoke,” he said.
Tobin doesn’t judge students who turn to drugs, even when some students switched schools to avoid the dogs.
However, the atmosphere in the halls has become less violent.
“Everything’s kind of mellowed down,” said Tobin.
The drug dog committee is a defensive approach to raising school spirits. As a member of the Be the Change committee, Tobin has helped the school go on the offensive to make the school better for its students.
Be the Change is an anti-bullying, positive school atmosphere group, which aims to instill more respect between students. Recently, the group organized for two motivational workers to hold workshops with students.
“Instead of everyone being negative towards people, it’s trying to find the good things in people even if you don’t like them,” said Tobin. “That’s had a big effect on the school.”
A rally of about 200 students broke off into smaller groups to build closer ties among students.
“I noticed a difference,” he said. “Everyone is a little more positive in the hallways and no one sits alone in the cafeterias.”
“The kids learn to be empathetic toward one another and learn that everybody comes from some kind of background that’s not very pleasant,” said Huff. “(The students learn) that you should accept and work with people from where they come from instead of picking on and bullying them because of it.”
This isn’t gratuitous feel-good-about-yourself stuff. You need to be proactive because adolescence is never a free ride.
“I don’t think it’s easy being an adolescent,” said Huff. “The challenges they have before them are as diverse as their backgrounds. Some of them are dealing all kinds of horrible things. Others are just going through adolescence not knowing where they fit, and fitting in is extremely important for them.”
“In order to fit in and belong, some turn to sports, some turn to drugs, some turn to bullying,” he said. “It’s an age-old problem.”
Tobin has found his place by excelling in sports on the Whitehorse Mustangs hockey team and with the Porter Creek Rams basketball team. The prospect of studying kinesiology in Lethbridge en route to becoming a gym teacher has given structure to the last of his high school years.
“Some days I would rather sleep in,” he said. “But school is a pretty important part of life for most kids who want to go out and become something. So I know that if I stick with it and get it over with I can start having fun soon.”
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