Group Seeks United Front to Combat Drug Abuse

Times Staff Writer

Warning that as many as 300 young people in this city are "seriously involved with drugs," an Episcopal priest is assembling a coalition of parents, police, school officials and community leaders to combat the problem.

"It's time for this community to have the guts to say we've got the same problems everybody else has and let's pool our resources and tackle these problems," said the Rev. John Lathrop, associate at St. James Episcopal Church and executive director of South Pasadena's Community Housing Services.

Speaking last week to a group of 45 people, including the police chief and members of the Board of Education and City Council, Lathrop unveiled his proposal to unite all of South Pasadena's drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation programs into a single, coordinated effort.

The coalition, called SPARE--South Pasadena Abuse Response Effort--will meet about once a month to discuss ways to prevent young people from using drugs.

Sparked by Publicity

The impetus for the group's formation, Lathrop said, was society's increasing concern with substance abuse, as evidenced by the highly publicized, cocaine-related deaths of college basketball standout Len Bias and pro football player Don Rogers.

"There's been an awareness developing throughout the country, and I think it's been highlighted over the last few weeks by the tragic happenings to those two sports stars," he said.

Lathrop, who has worked as drug abuse counselor in New York City, Compton and La Canada Flintgridge, said that the pervasiveness of drug abuse is the same in barrios and bedroom communities.

"When I went to La Canada I found the same problems I found in Compton, it's just that in La Canada people didn't want to admit there was a problem," Lathrop said.

Four Areas of Concentration

Lathrop's strategy is to divide SPARE's efforts into four areas--education, diversion alternatives, law enforcement and rehabilitation--and to devote a meeting to each topic.

However, some community leaders have cautioned that it will take more than meetings to make significant headway in the fight against teen-age drug abuse.

"I question whether meeting once every two months is going to be effective," said Councilman Robert Wagner. "I think this needs to be more of an activist group than a talk group."

Wagner said that the burden of fighting the drug problem still rests on the school district. He has suggested a program in which elementary school students would--with their parents' permission--be taken on field trips to detoxification centers and to the morgue to see firsthand the toll of drug and alcohol abuse.

Money and personnel also were mentioned by community leaders as being crucial to the organization's success.

To help the group reach its goals, St. James Episcopal Church will volunteer the services of its office staff, Lathrop said. He added that he will seek federal and private grants to garner funding for the organization's efforts.

The focus of the group's inaugural meeting was on education, specifically the South Pasadena Unified School District's new substance-abuse awareness program, which will be presented next year to all students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Preventive Program

Jo Saeta, the district's curriculum coordinator, said the program will try to avoid the scare tactics of earlier drug education efforts and instead attempt to help students develop "refusal skills."

"It is a preventive program, and it is based on teachers being nonjudgmental and really listening to students," Saeta said.

School board President Yvonne Pine said that the educational system provides the greatest opportunity for success in the fight against drugs. Schools, she added, also have the most to gain by curbing the problem.

"The teachers have to be convinced that they're looking at kids who are high and who aren't learning what's being taught," Pine said. "It took a long time for that awareness to take place."

Backing Up the Police

At its next meeting in mid-September, the group will discuss the law enforcement approach to dealing with drug abuse.

"The police have to know there's a constituency that will back them up when they bust Johnny next door," Lathrop said.

Although Police Chief William Reese questioned Lathrop's claim that between 25% and 27% of students at South Pasadena High School have drug problems, he said that the police department encourages community interest in the issue.

"I recognize that we do have a problem and we do need to deal with it," Reese said. "The pro-active approach Rev. Lathrop is taking is one I like.

Lack of Recreation

"One of the things that hurts us is that we are strapped by logistical problems. We have only three detectives, and we have a number of responsibilities, including child abuse, major crimes and narcotics use."

Another topic to be considered at a future meeting is the lack of recreational activities available to young people, which Lathrop said contributes heavily to teen-age drug abuse.

"There isn't anything for the kids to do in this town on Saturday night except what they call 'partying,' " he said.

Lathrop said that the group will work with the YMCA and the South Pasadena Department of Parks and Recreation to provide more youth-oriented activities.

Biggest Challenge

Pam Abbott, a peer counselor who graduated from South Pasadena High School three years ago, said the program will have to interest young people to be effective.

"The biggest challenge will be to attract the youth with youth-oriented activities that don't necessarily have anything to do with drug rehabilitation," Abbott said. "That will help make it much less threatening to parents.

"Pasadena is a community that is very in the closet about most community problems, not just drug abuse, but things like eating disorders and sexual abuse," she said.

"I think to be effective, parents will have to talk about these problems directly and not just complain about them in some arbitrary way."

Chief Reese said the effort to curb drug abuse will depend to a large extent on the amount of concern shown by parents and community leaders.

"We can give it all the lip service and attend all the meetings we want, but we need to have caring to help these kids," Reese said. "Unless we're motivated by love and caring, we're not going to be successful."

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