Eighth grade is a transitional year, a time when students have just entered their teenage years and are preparing for high school.
With this transition comes a host of new issues and choices young people will face, from drug and alcohol use to driving to relationships. To help them make informed decisions, School Community Youth Collaborative hosts Teen Maze, essentially a giant health fair in an interactive, maze-ish format.
The 19th annual Teen Maze took over the Montezuma County Fairgrounds this past Wednesday and Thursday, with hundreds of eighth graders from five local counties winding their way through the course, featuring a variety of healthy decisions-related rooms.
“The entire goal is to provide them with hard information in a positive way that enables them to make their own healthy decisions,” said Mary Jo Standard, director of SCYC. “They try hard not to be judgmental or condescending in their presentation, but rather educational, laying out the information in a matter-of-fact manner,” she said.
Room topics are decided based on a variety of factors: student input, Kids Count information and other local data, Standard said. This year’s event had more than a dozen community partners, including Renew Inc., the Colorado State Patrol, the local courts system, Piñon Project and more.
About 500 young people were projected to come through the two-day event, coming from Montezuma, La Plata and Dolores counties, along with some students from Pagosa Springs and Nucla, Standard said.
When Teen Maze first began, it was an actual maze, where certain choices would lead students down different paths. But this meant that teens would pass through only some of the rooms – which kept them from learning all available lessons.
“We want our young people to see the entire thing and to get all the information,” Standard said. “So now it’s essentially a big rectangle.”
Every year, they try and update the maze based on student feedback, and input from high school students on their advisory board.
“For example, nicotine,” Standard said. “We need to move on to vaping.”
The first room in the 2019 Teen Maze featured an Arrive Alive car, a Jeep with a simulator showing students what it’s like to drive impaired.
“We can make you drunk, we can make you high, we can make you experience what it’s like to be distracted behind the wheel,” said Danielius Palepsaitis, an ambassador for Arrive Alive.
By experiencing through the simulation how hard it is to drive distracted or under the influence, they hope to show students that “consequences are real,” he said.
Immediately following this stop, the Colorado State Patrol had a station where students were confronted with the remnants of a car from a distracted driving crash south of Durango that resulted in the death of Jennifer Clarise Powers.
“She was actually doing everything right, but she was struck in the rear end by a distracted driver, who pushed her head-on into two other cars,” said Master Trooper Doug Wiersma with CSP.
Her belongings were still in the smashed car. Wiersma said the point was to help people visualize the consequences of distracted driving.
“Giving kids a very, very real, tangible thing to look at,” Wiersma said. He added that most of the students at Teen Maze are still a few years away from driving themselves, so he hopes to plant the information before they get behind the wheel.
Dangers of the distractions of the modern world arose in other rooms too. High school students involved with the Teens in the Driver Seat program asked visitors dropping by to multi-task, playing Perfection, a game that requires focus, while simultaneously receiving a “call” from someone else, with a calculator for the phone.
“If they do pick it up, we’ll have them do math problems on the calculator, to show them you can’t really focus on both of those at the same time,” said Paige Featherman.
Also present were staff members from Renew Inc., a nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and adult survivors of child sexual abuse. They spoke to students about the value of healthy relationships, boundaries and consent.
“How to recognize signs of unhealthy relationships, and what signs are of healthy relationships,” said Alana Connelly with Renew. “And then what it means to create boundaries, and use friends and family for support.”
She added that it’s important the eighth graders understand that unhealthy relationships arise in a variety of contexts, and not just between romantic partners.
“Bullying is usual between someone you don’t like,” Connelly said. “But unhealthy relationships can be between people that you do like, and thought were friends. And they don’t talk about that.”