Siskiyou County Schools Tackle Tobacco

art-0913-tobacco2“Eighty-one percent of California teenagers prefer dating non-smokers,” recites Maya, a Butteville Elementary sixth grade student who is rehearsing for one of a series of recorded tobacco awareness ads to be shown at the Mount Shasta Cinema. Next, four boys enter the room with hand puppets, preparing to record their ad with videographer Mark Oliver.

Overseeing the production is Maggie Shepard, who is a school nurse and the prevention services coordinator for the Siskiyou County Office of Education. Her focus is to teach students about the negative effects of tobacco use while at the same time helping them build a sense of empowerment and self-worth.

The Tobacco Health Protection Act of 1988 (Proposition 99) funds both public health and school-based education programs to prevent and reduce tobacco use. In Siskiyou County, the school-based Tobacco Use Prevention Education program (TUPE) is composed of three components: a research-validated prevention curriculum; smoking cessation and intervention services; and youth development activities.

Shepard teaches the smoking cessation classes. Using assessment tools, students explore their relationship with tobacco: Do they smoke because of depression, stress, habit and/or peer pressure? What situations or people trigger smoking? Students keep journals to record tobacco use and the circumstances in which the use occurred, providing insight into situations that trigger an urge to smoke.

Students begin the quitting process by committing to not smoke during a specific time of day that they typically light up. This small goal is achievable, and instills a sense of control over tobacco use. Students also learn about smoke-free text apps and websites that provide additional support and encouragement whenever it’s needed.

Local artists bring their own vision to the tobacco prevention curriculum for sixth through twelfth graders. Mount Shasta artist Jill Gardner is passionate about art as a means of self-discovery, healthy experimentation, and self-expression. “Engaging students in the process of making art is the main creative task,” said Gardner. She is always surprised by the natural creativity that children possess. “What is your super-power?” she asks students. Their “super-power” is exactly what they need to lean on during times of stress, depression or crisis.

Poetry is used to explore students’ personal identities beyond peer and social pressures, and they learn Matisse-style paper collage to create images of healthy and fun activities they are saying “yes” to in their lives. Gardner also teaches drawing, and reminds students they must practice to improve. As the course ends, the students take home a complete art project as a reminder of their “yeses.”

TUPE provides youth development activities for grades 6-12 at most Siskiyou County schools. Prevention Specialist Mark Mitchinson facilitates one-day peer tobacco education trainings, where selected eighth grade students are trained as peer educators, and later give presentations to their schools’ sixth-grade classes. The presentations include hand-on activities and demonstrations. There’s an emphasis on chewing tobacco, as Siskiyou County has a significantly higher rate of use by minors than the national average.

If tobacco prevention programs assist students in quitting tobacco earlier in their lives, they may prevent tobacco-related death. “Smoking is one of the most damaging things you can do to your health,” Shepard comments. She adds, “The more quit attempts that happen, the more likely you are to quit using tobacco.”

“It is our hope that through the TUPE program, we can assist students to not only stop using tobacco, but in the process, help them build lifelong, positive health-promoting behaviors,” Shepard says.  As parents, teachers and friends of youth in our communities, we can all plant seeds of hope by sharing our passions and living healthy lives.

For more information about the Siskiyou County Office of Education’s Tobacco Use Prevention Education program, call (530) 842-8417 or email


Greta Hanelt
About Greta Hanelt

Author Greta Hanelt lives and plays in Mount Shasta with her husband and two young children. They enjoy the outdoors and exploring art projects of all kinds.

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