Richmond High School students gather to clean up trash and measure campus use of tobacco and marijuana
on November 15, 2014
A “chill Saturday afternoon” at Richmond High School included sixteen teenagers, boxes of snacks, icebreakers, and twenty empty trash bags waiting to be filled. It was Campus Cleanup Day.
The students, led by SEAYL (South East Asian Youth Leaders) interns, broke up into five teams and spent the afternoon roaming the campus and sorting through and picking up trash.
Earlier this year, the SEAYL interns travelled to high schools around the East Bay (including Albany, El Cerrito, and Berkeley) and noticed that other school campuses were much cleaner. “No Smoking” signs appeared everywhere – something missing from Richmond High. These visits spurred the interns to inaugurate their own Campus Cleanup Day and to focus on tobacco and marijuana use prevention. Tobacco and marijuana, of course, are forbidden on campus.
Their first step involved an unusual request: the students asked Richmond High school janitors not to clean after lunch or throughout the day Friday so they could gauge how much trash students left around campus in a single day.
After introductions, the students broke up into five color-coded teams – orange, purple, yellow, blue and green – and were given four trash bags and forty minutes to clean up their assigned areas. They were given trash bags for regular trash – paper cups, candy wrappers – and specially labeled Ziploc bags for any tobacco or marijuana related trash.
The yellow team, assigned to cleaning outside of the classrooms and the front of the parking lot, found dozens of Cheetos bags as well as a few cigarette butts strewn across the pavement.
“How much trash have you guys found?” asked SEAYL intern Kelly Wong to another team.
“A lot,” replied Lydia Solorzano, who is also a SEAYL intern.
“Us too,” said Kelly.
Within the first fifteen minutes, several teams filled their medium-sized trash bags.
After the first cleaning session, the students returned inside for snacks, another round of icebreaker games, and to debrief.
Nga Le, Co-Coordinator of SEAYL’s Richmond Tobacco Prevention project, asked the students to share what they were most surprised with.
“I knew people smoked, but I didn’t think they’d throw it on the ground,” said Richmond High student Joel Calderon.
Other students were surprised to find empty alcohol bottles at the front of the school, towards the street.
After examining the trash, the student volunteers found evidence that cigarette and marijuana use is at a high level among students, but that there was significantly more cigarette trash than marijuana trash on campus.
The students determined that the front of the school and the “portables” (detached classrooms typically used when there is construction on the campus) were tobacco and marijuana hotspots.
The majority of the tobacco litter was near the portables, in areas not easy to see. Hall passes were found scattered among the cigarette butts. Several students concluded that their classmates were using their breaks to “go out for a smoke.”
Sean Kirkpatrick, Co-Director of Richmond’s Community Health for Asian Americans, was one of three adults who joined the teenagers on Saturday. Noting the amount of tobacco and marijuana trash the students gathered, Kirkpatrick said, “This is the kind of behavior people do when they think they’re not being watched.”
Students say they believe the tobacco and marijuana trash came from their classmates, not from visitors or outsiders.
They suggested that putting in more trashcans, and emptying the existing trashcans more frequently might help control the trash problem.
After the debrief, several students scoured the school’s hallways to see if they could find any signs warning against tobacco and/or marijuana use. They came back empty-handed.
One student recalled that she had seen one “tobacco-free campus” sticker inside the central office. Another student chimed in, saying, “Yeah, but you can barely see it!”
Winding up the day, Le reminded the students, “The administration will make these changes only if you, the students, show them that you care about this.”
The SEAYL interns will present the day’s findings to Richmond High School’s administration at the end of this month and suggest policies on how to best combat tobacco and marijuana use— and littering – at their high school.
Currently, when Richmond High’s administration identifies a student who has been smoking or carrying drug paraphernalia, the administration redirects the student to the Health Center.
Richmond High School’s Principal, José A. De León, recognizes that the high school has problems with tobacco and marijuana use.
“A lot of the problems we’re having is students smoking before and after school. Sometimes they come to campus already high,” he said. “When we catch the students we give them strategies to leave those smoking habits. And support them if they’re already thinking of stopping to smoke,” added Principal De León.
At the end of the day of clean up, Richmond High School’s campus looked cleaner than ever. This time, though, students will be looking for ways to keep it that way.
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