The students come streaming into the media center at Weightman Middle School before school started, and went straight to work making posters.
They were creating messages for the middle school’s Red Ribbon Week, an effort to discourage drug use.
Some kids arrived at the library at 8 a.m. sharp, others drifted in over the next 20 minutes or so. Whether they arrived early or late, though, it was clear they wanted to be there.
The students belong to a school club called Students Working Against Tobacco, or SWAT for short. Their primary goal is to discourage tobacco use, but they’ve also branched into other areas, said Cpl. Kevin Brantley, the school resource officer at the Wesley Chapel middle school.
“We meet in here every Wednesday,” said Brantley, who launched this chapter of the club three years ago when he was stationed at Weightman.
The club gets bigger each year. It started with a dozen kids, then doubled in size.
Now, it has up to 50 members, with about 30 kids turning out any given week.
Besides spreading the word on the dangers of smoking and other forms of tobacco use, Brantley said the kids also pitch in on community cleanups and other volunteer efforts.
On Oct. 29, they created posters with a couple of different themes. One set of posters proclaimed, “Reddy to say no to drugs.”
“We’re playing on the word ‘red,’” Brantley explained, in honor of the school’s Red Ribbon Week.
The other posters said, “These paws don’t touch drugs.”
To help raise awareness of dangers posed by tobacco use, the club had an event last year where 88 people lined up, then fell, as if to their death. The dramatization signified the 88 people who die each day in Florida from medical conditions stemming from tobacco use.
The club plans to stage a similar event this year, Brantley said. The school resource officer likens these kinds of dramatizations to the Truth commercials from the American Legacy Foundation that appear on television to give people a reality check about the dangers of tobacco use.
Club member Jasmine Thoey said she belongs to SWAT because she wants to be a part of positive change.
“I don’t want other people to get sick,” she said.
She thinks the club appeals to other kids because it helps them feel that they can make a difference.
“We can do it,” Thoey said. “We can change the world.”
Beyond participating at school, Thoey and members of other SWAT clubs also make public appearances, speaking against the use of tobacco. She makes appearances before state lawmakers, city councils and other groups in the effort to stamp out tobacco use.
A group of SWAT students made an appearance earlier this year before the Pasco County school board asking for smoking to be outlawed on school campuses. Kenny Blankenship, president of United School Employees of Pasco, said the current contract allows schools to conduct surveys to see if they want to become tobacco-free. Under that contract, however, if even just one school employee wants to retain smoking on campus, the right to do so is protected.
But those who would ban tobacco use on school district grounds could see a major shift, if language in contract negotiations gains approval. USEP has agreed to the proposed elimination of tobacco use on district property effective July 1, 2016.
While contract negotiations continue at the district level, fourth-grader Siena Bracciale enjoys helping Weightman’s SWAT team on its projects. The daughter of principal Brandon Bracciale, she recently was at Weightman working on a poster.
Bracciale wants to discourage people from smoking or using drugs.
Besides spreading a message against tobacco and drugs, the club also gives kids a chance to meet other kids and to make friends, Brantley said. The Weightman club is part of a statewide youth organization that works to achieve a tobacco-free future.
Pasco County’s clubs have more than 250 active students. Besides Weightman, schools on the eastern and central portions of the county with SWAT clubs include Long Middle School, Pasco High School and Rushe Middle School.
Published December 3, 2014
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