DON'T Just Say No

Jane Hawes
Dom Tiberi visits with Dublin Jerome students in June.

They were exactly the kids Dom Tiberi wants to reach - the ones whose heads he wants to climb inside and be the voice they hear every time they put the key in the ignition.

"I want them to think," Tiberi said later, "is it really that important to brush your hair, apply your blush? Do you really need to play that latest song or send that text?"

They were juniors and seniors at Dublin Jerome High School. On an April afternoon, they sat in the school's auditorium - a small sea of colorful T-shirts and polo shirts emblazoned with college logos and the names of their sports teams. Some nabbed a few swipes of their phone screens before Tiberi took the stage. Most of them knew him as WBNS-10TV's sports anchor.

But many also knew Tiberi as a Dublin dad who, seven months earlier, had lost his 21-year-old daughter, Maria, to a car crash. Hilliard police, in their report, said the probable cause was a "momentary lapse of attention or an unknown distraction." How else to explain how a healthy, happy young woman - who wasn't using a phone, drugs or alcohol - drove into the back of a stopped semi-trailer on an Interstate 270 exit ramp?

"If you really love your parents," Tiberi pleaded with the young audience before him, "don't put them through the hell we're going through."

Girls in the audience began wiping their eyes and pressing their hands to their faces. Boys bit their nails and swallowed hard. None of them took their eyes off the grieving father in front of them.

Tiberi had their attention that April day. But would he succeed in keeping it after they had signed cards pledging to not drive distracted? Would he succeed in reducing the risks that teenagers court every day?

"Risk taking is actually normative at this age," said Dr. Fareeda Haamid, an adolescent-medicine physician at Nationwide Children's Hospital. "It's not because they're saying, 'I'm trying to make everyone annoyed at me.' It's because this is the way the brain is wired.

"Adolescence," Haamid added, "is not a disease. It's a phase of life."

It's a phase divided into three stages. The early phase, Haamid said, generally occurs between ages 10 and 13 as the body begins sexual maturation. The middle phase, ages 14 to 16, is what Haamid called "the group that's responsible for the reputation of adolescent behavior. This is the height of it." The late phase starts around age 17 but extends well into the 20s as brain development continues.

"This idea that we expect mature decisions out of a 14-year-old?" Haamid said. "I tell parents it's like asking an infant to tie their shoe."

But what can parents do, knowing that their kids are physiologically primed to do stupid stuff as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood?

"The goal is not to eliminate risk-taking behavior," said Haamid. "Risk will never be zero. The goal is to not let it lead to drastic consequences. It's all about harm reduction."

Wayne Campbell knows about drastic consequences. His son Tyler was a high-school football star from Pickerington, a walk-on at the University of Akron who earned a football scholarship his sophomore year. Tyler was prescribed painkilling drugs by the team's medical staff. Less than three years later, in July 2011, he died from a heroin overdose, suffered hours after his third release from rehab. The prescription painkillers had led to a heroin addiction, making Tyler one of 1,766 Ohioans to die from an accidental drug overdose that year. Most of those victims were young, like Tyler, and had gotten hooked on opiates.

In the aftermath of his son's death, Campbell, like Tiberi, has taken to high-school auditorium stages, to town halls and anyplace in between that will let him talk. Along the way, he said he's learned a lot about what it takes to get through to adolescents.

"We got a group of kids together," he said, "and asked them, 'What would you listen to?' The overwhelming message was, 'Do not tell us what to do.'"

Campbell also asked teachers about drug-prevention programs already in existence.

"'Just Say No' - that was 30 years ago," Campbell said of the anti-drug program started by former First Lady Nancy Reagan in response to the growing use of marijuana. "I asked the teachers, 'Does it work?' and they all said, 'No.'"

So Campbell doesn't just say no. Instead, he and his fellow volunteer parents come at the kids from another angle: "We do something different. We're asking them to speak up for a friend. We're asking them to help another person."

The nonprofit foundation Campbell formed - Tyler's Light - provides kids and their parents with instructions to get help for someone else. If that "someone else" just happens to be themselves, all the better.

Haamid said that, while school assemblies and videos with horrific images can certainly be attention-getting in the short term, "programs, which show the teenager how to perform a specific skill set, are more effective."

If Haamid is dealing with a sexually active teen, she said she walks her patient through the specifics of how to use a condom or get out of a bad situation "where you're alone in a room with a guy."

Charles "Chuck" Collier is a Dublin police officer and the Tiberi family's neighbor. He also spoke to the Dublin Jerome students that day. After the assembly, Collier said, "With this age, they've got to have a personal connection, something they can reach out and touch. They don't deal in the abstract too well."

That's why, as a part of his presentations, Tiberi asks the students - all 8,000 of them in the 16 schools he has already visited - to look at their best friends, their boyfriends and girlfriends - and then imagine the person they're looking at is dead. It's the most personal connection he can think to make for them.

"It's desperation on my part," Tiberi admitted later, "because I want to save every kid I can.

"I keep waiting for Maria to come home. It took me six months to turn her phone off and we would still send her texts. We bring these children into this world and there is no parent I know who wouldn't lay down their life for their kids."