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ALERT Educators Share Their Stories

by Andrea Warren

Last February we asked you to tell us your favorite Project ALERT classroom experiences, or tips you thought other educators might like to try. Project ALERT's Andrea Warren compiled seven of your responses to share here. 

Doing Drugs with Her Father 

Karmen Ruffatto, Classroom Teacher, Columbus Public Schools, Columbus, Montana


When Karmen Ruffatto was teaching Project ALERT to seventh graders, she often invited upper classmen to share their personal struggles with substance abuse. “I feel they connected best with my younger audience,” Karmen said, “and they wanted their stories to serve as examples that you don’t have to use drugs just because others pressure you.”

Ruffatto especially remembers a student—“a young woman full of energy and self confidence”
who had moved to our town after having lived with her father in another state. While with him, she said that she had reached her lowest points in drug abuse. “She was using with her dad,” said Ruffatto. “She described these scenes to my students, of how it became daily use condoned by parent with the responsibility to ‘raise her right.’ Finally she said she’d had enough and she moved away.

“My students were silent as they absorbed the message that you can say ‘no.’ After the presentation they wrote thank you notes to her. She loved the notes so much that she offered her phone number to them if any of them needed to talk more.”

Because of changes at her school, Ruffatto is regretfully no longer teaching Project ALERT, “but I will never forget the impact those students had on me, and that Project ALERT had on them.”

A Home-based Discussion

Gina Holmgren, MA, MS, Drug & Violence Prevention Specialist, Burlington, North Carolina

Although Gina Holmgren is only in her second year of teaching Project ALERT, she’s already seen evidence of the program’s power.

Last year while she was presenting the course at Broadview Middle School, A Title I school in a low income area, one of her students shared with the class that after the lesson on marijuana she had told an unnamed family member who regularly smoked marijuana what she had learned about the drug’s harmful effects on the body. “He scoffed at her, responding that “weed is all natural and there’s nothing wrong with smoking it,” Holmgren said.

She used this opportunity to lead students into a discussion about this common claim, contrasting it to the actual impact marijuana can have on users. When Holmgren said that steady smokers can lose their sense of motivation, the student stated that her family member “was not very motivated to do anything except smoke marijuana.”

For Holmgren, “it was nice to have this real life example to reinforce the lesson,” helping to validate what her students were learning.

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Diane Meadows, Prevention Specialist, Saint Vincent College Prevention Projects, Latrobe, Pennsylvania


Can thumbs be a learning tool? Diane Meadows, who goes into local school districts on a contract basis to teach Project ALERT, has proved they can.

When her classes study Lesson Four and discussion turns to how many students actually use drugs, Meadows asks her seventh graders to guess the percentage of users among eighth graders in their own school. Meadows already has the answers because she has of the results of an eighth grade survey of area students regarding their usage of cigarettes, marijuana and/or alcohol in a thirty-day period.

Then, because she knows that interaction is one way to get students as connected as possible to what they’re learning, she asks students to guess a percentage for each drug. As students guess, the others give it a thumbs up or thumbs down response. Then Meadows writes the correct percentage on the board.

“Students tend to think the correct percentages should be very high—often times in the seventieth percentiles. Some come from environments were drugs and alcohol usage is common and they are surprised that the truth is often a much lower figure.”

For Meadows, this exercise does two things: “It gives me a good look at students’ perceptions of drug and alcohol usage, and it gives them a reality check. And it offers me a great segue into a discussion that in spite of what they see around them, not everyone uses drugs.” 

You Were the Voice in My Head

Tammy Small, M.Ed., Counselor, St. Anthony School, Renton, Washington


Tammy Small, a Project ALERT educator for six years in a private school, has always felt Project ALERT to be “a great tool for honest conversation, excellent practice in refusal, and strong education around use and abuse.”

She learned how true this is from a former student who had moved to another school district. “She came back to visit and I enjoyed hearing about her successes and her future plans,” Small said. “But I also learned about her struggles. Her new school was rough around the edges. It had gang issues. She told me said she had to change friendship groups several times because she was being pressured to use drugs.

“Then she said, ‘When that happened, I remembered what you’d taught me about the impact of alcohol and drugs and how they decrease motivation. You told us that no one ever plans on becoming an addict. I knew I didn’t want to even go there. It was like you were a voice in my head. It made it easy to say no.’”

Choosing to be Drug Free

Paul Faenza, Black River Area Community Coalition, Ludlow, Vermont

After twenty years with the New York City Police Department, including nine years with drug enforcement, Paul Faenza was ready for a change of pace. He moved to Mount Holly, Vermont, and went to work in nearby Ludlow, a small rural community where the entire student population is just under 200. Faenza works part time with the Ludlow Police Department and also serves as a coordinator with the Community Coalition—a nonprofit group whose mission is to prevent young people from using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

For six years he’s been teaching Project ALERT to seventh graders and the booster lessons to eighth graders at Black River Middle & High School, where he’s acquainted with all the students.

Last June, his first class of seventh graders graduated from high school. Faenza has stayed in touch with many of them. He knows their parents, and he also knows that almost all of these students have chosen to be drug and alcohol free. “They’ve made healthy choices, and it shows in their demeanor, activities, and educational performance,” he said.

Faenza credits Project ALERT for much of this. “We’ve been able to build on the program lessons with these kids clear through high school. Thank you, Project ALERT, for all your support!”

That Kid Didn’t Have Mrs. Zane

Karyn Zane, Classroom Teacher, East Elementary School, Brentwood, New York

Karyn Zane began her teaching career in the classroom and then spent seven years as part of her district’s Safe and Drug Free Schools Team, working as the Elementary Substance Abuse Prevention Educator. The program has since been cut for budgetary reasons and Zane is back in the classroom. But during those years of working in prevention, Zane heard one story that especially affirmed to her that drug prevention works.

A teaching assistant’s grandson had taken Project ALERT from Zane.  One day the teaching assistant saw a newspaper article about a teen who got into trouble because of drug use. She read the story aloud to her grandson. His reply? “Obviously that kid didn’t have Mrs. Zane as a teacher. She told us how dangerous drugs are and how much trouble you can get into!”

“When she told me that,” Zane said, “I felt like the program and I had made a difference. It’s heartbreaking that we’re not able to keep it going. All young people need it.”

An Innovative Way to Teach Project ALERT in Small Groups


Chita Johnson, David Kwinn and Vicki Tolan

When California’s Alta Loma School District introduced Project ALERT to its students in the early 1990’s, the program was part of the science curriculum. Vicki Tolan, who teaches science and physical education at Alta Loma Junior High School, presented the course in her science classes.

Because of the subject matter, she found that students became more invested in the information when it came from their peers. So she presented the videos and used course materials. Then she stepped into the role of advisor while the students researched all types of addictive drugs, and presented their findings to their classmates.

Her classes had twenty-five to thirty-five students—a comfortable number to create the type of setting for information exchange and discussion. “In a smaller group, students participate more and get additional attention from the teacher,” Tolan said. “These factors are especially important when discussion turns to sensitive issues.”

Then came change. When the district moved Project ALERT into the seventh grade P.E. curriculum, Tolan found herself still teaching it, this time in her P.E. classes. But in P.E., a typical class had fifty students, eliminating the small group approach that she had found so effective.

Tolan, who chairs the P.E. department, brainstormed solutions and decided on an approach that the
P.E. department has now used for the past ten years. Each section of fifty students is divided in half.MakingPosters While a teaching assistant works with one group, Tolan or Chita Johnson, who teaches both seventh and eighth grade P.E., works with the other. The teaching assistant takes groups to the library to research topics assigned to each student. Topics include all types of addictive drugs, including energy drinks because usage of these is up among the school’s students. Johnson puts additional emphasis on drinking while driving and students in her sections see a video she has made that shows a simulated car crash and its aftermath. Both teachers include peer pressure and bullying, since these factor into young people feeling coerced to try drugs. The teaching assistant also oversees students as they work on posters and write essays about their research topics. Between the teaching assistant and the teachers, students always have a knowledgeable advisor to answer questions or concerns.

During the time students are with Tolan and Johnson, they see and discuss the Project ALERT videos and the lessons. On the final day they give presentations to their small groups and show their posters, which are then displayed around the school.  Eighth grade P.E. teacher David Kwinn teaches the booster lessons to all students the following year in his classes.

Funds to hire the teaching assistant and purchase additional supplies used in making the posters has always been an issue. In the beginning the district covered these costs, but with budget cuts becoming steeper every year, Tolan has stepped up and personally made up the difference. Last year, major cuts meant there would not even be partial assistance from the district. Tolan told BEST her story when educators were asked to share their experiences teaching Project ALERT. In recognition of Vicki Tolan’s personal commitment to the program, The BEST Foundation came through with funds to cover the current school year while Tolan and her colleagues are applying for grants and looking for other sources of funding for next year, but “money is getting very scarce in California,” she said.

She has vowed, however, that even if it means fifty students in a class, seventh graders will receive Project ALERT and eighth graders will continue to get the booster lessons. “Like my colleagues, I want to give 100 percent to my students,” she said,” and even if we can’t do it the way we feel is best, Project ALERT will still be part of our curriculum.”

Tolan’s small group approach to teaching Project ALERT has a strong fan base. Michelle Richardson, the district’s assistant superintendent, now retired, commented that when she observed Tolan’s classes, “I was quite impressed with the level of student engagement. She gets maximum buy-in from the students.”

Sam Happach, an Alta Loma eighth grader, said the program helped him know what to do when confronted with offers of cigarettes or chewing tobacco. “Project ALERT helped explain what looks cool but really isn’t cool at all,” he said. “I’m glad I went through that program.”

His mother, Barbara Happach credits Tolan’s class “for opening the door to communicating with my son about some very difficult, but important topics.

*For more tips on handling large PE classes, see Case Study: Help for PE Classes


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