Today's Homework: Say No to Smoking, Drugs

Times Staff Writer

Mario Endara sat with his son, Juan, in the dining room of his Monrovia home one night after supper, trying his best to get the 12-year-old boy to try a cigarette.

"Come on, go ahead and try it. It's good. You'll like it," said Endara, 37, waving a cigarette in front of his son.

Actually, Endara quit smoking three years ago and the last thing he wants his son to do is take up the habit that had him in its grip for 17 years. So he was eager to help Juan with a homework assignment to practice how to politely but firmly say no to anyone pressuring him to smoke.

"It was kind of funny," Endara said of the role-playing exercise, which is part of a a smoking-prevention program called Feeling Fine. It was offered recently to seventh-graders at Clifton Middle School in Monrovia.

'Hard for Me'

"It was hard for me to do but I had to," said Endara. "My wife and I talk to him and do what we can do at home," Endara added, "but any extra help in the school is good."

A few weeks earlier, in nearby El Monte, a group of children and parents at Jenny Tucker Baker School listened intently as Raymond Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, told the story of an alcoholic who often spent a month's paycheck in a bar in one night, ran from responsibility and ruined the lives of his family members.

As part of a Self-Management and Resistance Training (SMART) program run by the same organization that sponsors Feeling Fine, he volunteered to share his experiences.

"I don't preach to them," said Hernandez, now a recovering alcoholic. "I give them my own story. I tell them, 'You don't have to go this way. You have a choice and can live a different kind of life, one for the better.' "

90% Are Latino

The 20 parents and 30 children at Baker, where 90% of the fourth- through eighth-graders are Latino, were taking part in a far-ranging program aimed at helping young people develop healthy life styles and keep from getting involved in drugs.

Feeling Fine and Project SMART are two of a number of substance-abuse-prevention programs conducted in Southern California schools by the Health Behavior Research Institute, an affiliate of USC's School of Pharmacy.

"Before, most programs dealt with enforcement or treatment," said Steven Senor, director of communications for the Pasadena-based institute. "There was very little to prevent people from taking drugs or teach kids the skills to say no and develop other assertive skills."

The programs are geared to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, the age level at which peer pressure to use drugs often begins to mount, researchers say.

A study conducted over the past five years found that by the time they reach seventh grade, 48% of the youngsters in Southern California have smoked cigarettes, 60% have drunk alcohol and 12% have tried marijuana, said institute researcher Unto Pallonen. By the 10th grade, 55% have used alcohol and 33% have experimented with marijuana.

'Gateway Drugs'

Pallonen, who specializes in smoking-behavior research, said the Health Behavior Research Institute programs focus on keeping young people from experimenting with the "gateway drugs," alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana.

"Alcohol is the first step," Pallonen said. "Then it's smoking (cigarettes) and then marijuana. And from marijuana they move up to harder drugs. If you smoke, the likelihood to drink is very high. And if you smoke and drink, the chances are high that you will try harder drugs."

C. Anderson Johnson, director of the institute, said his group is conducting 17 projects aimed at preventing smoking, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and poor dietary habits and sedentary life styles. The programs include the Feeling Fine series offered at the Monrovia school, Project SMART, the Tobacco and Alcohol Prevention Project (TAPP), Project PASS UP, which involves parents in helping prevent substance abuse, and Project Advance, which assesses the extent to which smoking and alcohol are used by young people to cope with stress.

"A great deal of our research focuses on children and adolescents--we are prevention-oriented," he said. "People will live a better life if good habits and life styles are developed early."

Johnson said his group receives about $3.5 million in grants each year from organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Cancer Institute.

Teach How to Say No

Although many of the group's programs emphasize proper diet and exercise, Feeling Fine and Project SMART attempt to teach teen-agers how to say no in socially acceptable ways to pressure to use the gateway drugs, and to get parents involved in the education process, Johnson said.

The Health Behavior Research Institute's long-range goal is to get young people to establish good habits at an early age, in the hopes of eventually reducing the incidence of cancer and heart disease nationwide.

Institute staff members visit schools throughout Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, talking to students about drugs, setting up role-playing exercises and monitoring discussions. Meetings with parents are sometimes set up at night and volunteers such as Hernandez come in and talk about their problems with addiction and abuse.

Since 1980, the institute has taken its prevention programs to more than 100,000 students at 300 schools in the Los Angeles Basin, including 5,000 students at 30 schools in the San Gabriel Valley, said Nata Preis, the school project liaison for the research group.

Researchers Select School

Institute researchers select a school that might, because of its demographics, provide data that could help improve existing health promotion programs.

In targeting a school, Preis and her staff consider population, ethnic makeup, test scores, socioeconomic status and receptivity, Preis said.

Once a school is targeted, Preis contacts the school principal, who submits the proposal to the school board and faculty for approval.

If the school decides to go ahead with a program, letters explaining the project's purposes and procedures are sent to parents, who must agree to allow their children to participate in the program.

According to Albert Gasparian, who has been the principal at Baker for four years, the school's Parent Advisory Group was involved in the decision to bring Project SMART to the El Monte school.

Concern Was Voiced

"We met with the parent group and drug abuse was a concern that was voiced every year," Gasparian said. "When the opportunity presented itself we took it. USC is an accredited university and they have a well-thought-out program designed to meet the needs of the students."

Although Gasparian and the school community were receptive to the program from the outset, Preis said some other schools are not.

"A lot of communities feel they are acknowledging a problem" if they invite the group to a school, Preis said. "What they don't realize is that we deal with prevention, not intervention."

At Clifton Middle School, only one parent refused to allow his child to take part in Feeling Fine, said Principal Rhuenette Montle.

Staff members from the research group go to the classroom and talk first about the the hazards of substance abuse and then teach students techniques of refusing drugs.

Taught to Walk Away

Through the program, students are taught to walk away from drug offers and to avoid places where drugs are likely to be present. Youngsters are also taught how to change the subject when the topic of drugs comes up, and how to make the people who offer drugs feel badly about doing it.

The programs rely largely on role-playing exercises in which students pretend they are confronted with peer pressure to use drugs, and practice the techniques learned earlier to refuse the offer.

The classes then discuss and evaluate the scenario and the effectiveness of refusal techniques.

Later, students fill out questionnaires about their life styles and habits in an effort to gauge the effectiveness of the program and to obtain research data.

Many students exposed to the Feeling Fine program at Clifton said they learned a lot from it.

"If I don't smoke I'm not going to be a person that's not 'in,' " said 12-year-old Valerie Jennings, a seventh-grader. "I'm not going to be the only person that doesn't smoke."

Concerned About Curiosity

Valerie's mother, Marsha Jennings, said her daughter had not expressed any interest in smoking before becoming involved in the Feeling Fine program and Jennings voiced some concern that all the attention may have unnecessarily piqued her curiousity.

However, she was quick to add that she thought the program was good idea.

"I would still want her to participate in the program because it teaches you something that must be brought up. . . . She did learn how to say no to drugs and how to deal with peer pressure."

And at least one parent of a Clifton seventh-grader in the Feeling Fine program decided to quit smoking after her daughter, Kristal Clark, completed the 10-day program.

"After that project she was constantly on me to quit. She kept telling me I was going to die, I was going to look older, I stank," said Vennie Clark, a cosmetologist. "It had gotten to the point where she'd come home and I'd have to go run and put out my cigarette. . . . I got tired of her nagging and my procrastinating and quit."

7 Meetings Organized

The Project SMART program has been so well received at Baker that eager parents have organized seven subsequent meetings to discuss drugs, how to detect signs of drug abuse in their children and how to handle the situation if it arises.

At one evening session, representatives of the El Monte Police Department brought in a briefcase containing illegal drugs to show parents how to identify them and signs of drug use. And several successful Latinos have been brought in to serve as role models to encourage students to establish drug-free, healthy life styles.

One parent at the meeting at Baker was Stella Gil, a mother of four whose oldest child, 12, attends Baker.

"They show you how to help your children," Gil said. "If I found out now that my daughter was drinking or using drugs, I wouldn't get excited or slap her around. I'd sit her down and talk to her and find out why she's starting to drink."

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