Photos courtesy of Tempe Union High School District
It’s rare to watch the news or consume any type of media coverage these days without hearing the word “fentanyl.” A synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl is so dangerous that top officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently categorized it as “the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered.”
But here in Tempe, there is a ray of hope. It comes in the form of four talented, driven, and creative high school students in the Tempe Union High School District: Cloe Bolen (McClintock senior), Sydney Braun (Corona del Sol sophomore), Jaia Neal (Corona del Sol junior), and Max Weidinger (Corona del Sol senior).
Braun, Neal, and Weidinger participate in the DECA program at Corona del Sol, a popular leadership club that prepares young leaders for future opportunities through project-based learning. A talented videographer, Bolen made video production a focus during her time at McClintock. She was interning for the district’s digital media coordinator, Warren Cole, and was asked to attend a meeting to discuss taking the Corona team’s fentanyl awareness campaign districtwide.
The working group of students and staff that would become known as No Second Chance (NSC) first gathered in fall 2022 in a windowless conference room at Corona del Sol High School. Ron Denne Jr., the district’s social emotional wellness coordinator, and Eric Lauer, the district’s health and wellness coach, both attended the initial meeting. Cole and other representatives from the district’s community relations team were also on hand to learn more and see how they could assist. No one in the room at the time could have predicted the impact of the project on the wider community.
“Our students are experts in the lives of young people their age and are able to create, lead, and provide a voice to the work that we cannot as adults,” says Denne. “I am in awe every day of the ideas and vision this group has created.”
A core principle that emerged out of the early meetings was the importance of peer-to-peer messaging. Information about drugs and similar issues delivered by adults tend to be filtered out by teenagers. Would a fact-based message from a peer have more impact? Another important focus area was providing factual information. Information about fentanyl was being spread almost as rapidly as the drug itself, but much of it was outdated or inaccurate.
“Typically, people are more apt to listen to someone of their own age,” says Braun. “When students are warning fellow students about the dangers of fentanyl, they may connect better to the speaker, pay more attention to the message, and be more apt to care about what is being said.”
In order to effectively develop the awareness campaign, the group spent the next few months meeting with experts from the Tempe Coalition, The Pathway Program, the Tempe Police Department, and even a fentanyl overdose survivor. The day-to-day experiences of those individuals helped bring a level of both authenticity and urgency to the campaign.
With the foundational aspects of the campaign in place, No Second Chance team members began filming a series of public service announcements, researching and gathering information for TUHSD’s website, and presenting to student groups.
The first two public service announcements were released in mid-February on social media and YouTube. The PSAs were also played regularly during school video announcements, with the goal of reaching every student within the Tempe Union High School District. Local news coverage on the project quickly followed, and the students were invited to present their work at a Town Hall event in March sponsored by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, and the Youth Advocacy Day held in April by the Substance Abuse Coalition Leaders of Arizona (SACLAZ).
Plans for the rest of the school year include filming and releasing additional PSAs, and a trip to Orlando for the Corona DECA team members to compete with the project at the DECA International Career Development Conference (ICDC). Both Bolen and Weidinger will attend Arizona State University next year, and Braun and Neal will continue on at Corona del Sol.
They’re proud of the work they’ve done this year and ultimately, they know they’ve created something special above and beyond the awareness campaign: a blueprint for how Tempe Union and other districts can work directly with students to amplify their voice on important issues.
“I can’t believe what this project has grown into,” says Neal. “If you told me [in the beginning] that we would be on the news, interviewed for a national news article, and put in a newspaper that went out to thousands of homes…I would think you were crazy. Nevertheless, here we are.”
For more information on the No Second Chance initiative, including PSAs, visit tempeunion.org/fentanyl-facts.
This content is sponsored by Tempe Union High School District.