MASON, Ohio -- Drugs and alcohol may not be the first things that come to mind as focus areas for fostering peace, but for members of the nonprofit Student Peace Council, they're primary targets.
The organization was founded in early 2015 by Chinmay Bakshi, who at the time was a sophomore at Mason High School. Now a senior and president of the student-led nonprofit, Bakshi recalls that he founded the Student Peace Council largely in response to mass shootings in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater.
"It was very difficult for me to accept that there were things like school shootings that were still prevalent," he said.
While the Student Peace Council aims to raise awareness about bullying and school violence, Bakshi also saw an opportunity to tackle other types of conflict, like teen drug and alcohol abuse.
"A lot of things stem back to these very negative external factors that students have to go through," he said.
Mason High School senior and fellow council member Matthew Liao agreed.
"I know that teen drug abuse is a pretty big problem," he said.
The group started out with local projects, like organizing a Red Ribbon Week to raise awareness about drug abuse. During the observation of the national week-long campaign, Student Peace Council members put up red ribbons and balloons at school, distributed drug awareness lollipops and collected student pledges to remain drug-free.
Since 2015, the council has grown in numbers and reach, shifting its focus beyond the walls of Mason High School to the Greater Cincinnati community and even statewide policy.
"I felt that, over the years, I wanted to make a big difference in the community," Bakshi said.
The group currently has 39 student members who attend Mason High School and two faculty advisers. Some members who have graduated and are now attending college at Ohio State University remain involved with the nonprofit as well.
The council recently has been pursuing projects and partnerships with Mason Mayor Victor Kidd, representatives for Sen. Rob Portman's office and the FBI's Cincinnati office.
Through their partnership with the local FBI, the group's members got permission to present the opiate addiction documentary "Chasing the Dragon" to students at Mason High School.
Members also hope to see their partnership with Portman's office lead to legislation for continued drug education programming throughout high school. Drug education made available through programs like D.A.R.E. is typically implemented in fifth or sixth grade. Beyond that, drug education may only be touched on briefly in school as part of a health class.
"We wanted to craft legislation that could take funding from the state and the state government and allocate that toward drug education in schools," Bakshi said.
Other projects include a student-produced show addressing issues faced by high-schoolers, fundraisers to initiate projects in underprivileged areas and efforts to establish a statewide Peace Day.
Bakshi attributes much of the nonprofit's success to the fact that the organization is student-led.
"The reason it works ... is really because the novel approach that we're taking is by kids, for kids," he said.
Youths are more likely to relate and listen to presentations about drugs, alcohol, bullying and school violence when the message is coming from their peers rather than teachers or administrators, he added.
The broad range of issues addressed within the council appeals to students as well. While one student, according to Bakshi, found strength from the group in dealing with her parents' alcoholism, Teja Bollimunta was moved by the council's stance against violence.
"It's really important to be living in a safe learning environment," said Bollimunta, a senior at Mason and business head for the Student Peace Council.
The topic hits particularly close to home for him, having moved to the U.S. from India roughly two years ago. During a dispute that led an Indian state to split in two, his school was shut down because of violence.
Whether dealing with school violence, bullying, drugs or alcohol, he hopes his efforts in the Student Peace Council can help other students avoid negative influences.
"Every day ... lives are lost to these things," Bollimunta said.
With the growth the organization already has seen, Bakshi sees his upcoming graduation as an opportunity to continue to expand its reach, making the Student Peace Council a national nonprofit. Chapters already have been created in Indiana, Tennessee and Kansas.
"In college, my goal is that I want to get these chapters blossoming in all different states throughout the United States," Bakshi said.