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Early Start : Schools Step Up Anti-Drug Efforts Beginning in Lower Grades, Continuing Into High School

Times Staff Writer

At Banning High School, about 450 male and female athletes will be asked to take voluntary drug tests to prove to their peers that they are, in the words of Principal Estele Pena, “as clean as they claim to be.”

In the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, a drug education specialist has been hired to bring together a wide variety of community and school programs to form what one administrator calls a united front against drugs.

In Lawndale, the schools have entered into a coalition with the city and the Sheriff’s Department to provide a comprehensive program of drug education for elementary students. The city will contribute $50,000 to the effort.

In Torrance, a city police officer has been assigned full time to the school beat, and several other districts plan to ask law-enforcement agencies to help them get across the anti-drug message at their schools.

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Stronger Programs

Most districts in the South Bay say they are looking for ways to strengthen their drug education programs, and school administrators generally are vowing to tighten enforcement of laws against the use, sale and possession of drugs on their campuses.

These and other programs awaiting students in the new school year are still far short of the efforts needed to carry out what many see as a growing public mandate to get serious about the drug crisis, school officials concede.

“But it’s a beginning,” said Jack Bagdasar, president of the Peninsula school board. “It won’t be easy to turn this thing around, but I believe the commitment is there to do whatever it takes.”

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Signs of a new social consensus against drugs emerged over the summer, Bagdasar and other school officials said. They cite the heavy publicity given to the drug-related deaths of athletes Len Bias and Don Rogers, President Reagan’s declaration of a national “war on drugs” and growing concerns over the ready availability of new drugs, such as the rapidly addictive form of cocaine popularly called “crack.”

They also point to a recent Gallup Poll indicating that the public has identified drugs as the most important problem facing the nation’s school system. By wide margins, the poll found, adults favor such measures as searching lockers and expelling students caught using drugs.

(South Bay administrators said they search lockers when they have reason to believe that students are hiding drugs in them. Only school boards have the authority to expel students, but administrators said they do not hesitate to recommend that action in serious cases of drug violations.)

“We do seem to be gearing up for a big push,” said Gus Dalis, a veteran health education specialist in the county’s Department of Education. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from the districts, asking for information and advice on what they should do.”

Dalis said he promotes long-term planning. “I tell people to be wary of the show-biz, quick-fix approach to the problem,” he said. “We will need a concentrated, tenacious effort that stresses early prevention and involves the schools, parents, the churches, law enforcement--every element of society that influences behavior.”

Lennox Program a Model

One of the county’s best models for that approach, Dalis said, is a program begun last year in the Lennox Elementary School District.

A $28,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning launched the effort, and this year the local board is budgeting up to $12,000 in district funds to carry on the program in the 5,000-student system, administrator Jane St. John said.

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“We feel a special obligation to our kids because the drug problem is so severe in this community,” she said, noting that many of the youngsters are exposed daily to drug use and trafficking in their neighborhoods.

St. John said the district spent about $15,000 of the grant money on a copyrighted drug education program called, “Here’s Looking at You, Two.” The program, developed several years ago in Washington state, provides videotapes, filmstrips, books and other materials keyed to each grade level.

The training, which begins in the fourth grade, is provided once a week as part of the schools’ health sciences curriculum, St. John said.

She said participation by the county Sheriff’s Department has been a key factor in developing the Lennox program.

“Dan Finkelstein, the deputy working with us, has been a big hit with the kids, as well as the parents and teachers,” she said. “He gives just the right image of a caring authority figure.”

She said Finkelstein has helped inform teachers about drug abuse, taught classes and conducted workshops for parents.

The workshops, coordinated by program staffer Anna Aguilar, focus on why children begin using drugs, behavior that may indicate drug use and what parents can do to prevent it.

“Most parents really want to help their youngsters, but often they don’t know what to do,” Aguilar said. “They think that if the subject of drugs can be avoided, it won’t exist.”

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Lawndale Supt. James Waters said his elementary district will use the Lennox model, but with an updated version of that district’s materials called, “Here’s Looking at You, 2000.”

“We were stymied for awhile because we didn’t see how we could afford a sheriff’s deputy,” he said. “But then the city of Lawndale offered to contribute $50,000 and everything began to fall into place.”

Waters said he has no evidence of a serious drug problem in his schools. “But we’re looking to the future,” he said. “Our kids, like everyone else’s, will be exposed to drugs sooner or later and so we want to do all the early prevention we can.”

The Lawndale program, like those in most other districts, will be integrated into the schools’ regular science curriculum, which includes instruction in health.

The Hawthorne Elementary School District is among several systems that are considering the Lennox model. “We’ve had some of our staff over there and they like what they see, but we want to review some of the other programs before we decide,” Supt. Roger Bly said.

Visits by Police Officer

He said the district’s current program includes regular classroom visits by a Hawthorne police officer who discusses drug issues with youngsters in health science courses.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that the public is deeply concerned about school drug problems,” Bly said. “I hear a lot about it at community meetings and from individual parents.”

In the Inglewood schools, officials said they face a severe drug problem but have not yet worked out a districtwide program to combat it.

“The need is certainly evident,” said Hollis Dillon Jr., coordinator of special services. “What I hope we can do is develop a major interagency program that will enable us to intervene effectively in cases where the kids are already hooked, while we get started on the real solution to the problem.”

The real solution, Dillon said, is to “raise the level of awareness of the kids and their parents, so that youngsters can look at the drug culture and say, ‘This is not for me.’ Until we can do that, the lure of drugs will be too strong in many cases.”

The Lure Is Money

For some youngsters, particularly in poor neighborhoods, the lure is money, Dillon said.

“Look,” he said, “on a good day I’m carrying maybe $25 in my wallet and I drive around in an old Toyota, and here comes a kid with $5,000 stuffed in the pockets of his Jordache jeans and he’s wearing five gold chains around his neck and big diamonds on his fingers, and there’s a big, new, powerful Nissan pickup waiting for him at the curb.

“Do you really think that kid is going to listen when I tell him he’s in the wrong scene? I’m saying that a whole lot of things have been turned upside down and we’ve got a real problem here.”

In Torrance, the schools and the city Police Department are starting the second year of DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Under that program, developed by the Los Angles Unified School District in partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department, veteran Torrance juvenile officer Larry Fuller will return full time to the school beat to talk with middle school students and teach classes on drugs and the juvenile justice system.

Occasionally Wears Uniform

Fuller usually wears civilian clothes on campus, but occasionally dons his uniform to remind the students that he represents the law-enforcement wing of the effort to curb drug abuse.

Fuller said he feels that a part of his mission is to show young people that “police officers are human beings, too, with families and problems like everybody else. We just happen to have the job of enforcing the law, which mostly means helping people and not trying to find ways to hassle them.”

Paul Sittel, Torrance director of child welfare and attendance, said Quest, a program sponsored by the Lions Club, is another part of the district’s anti-drug effort.

“We piloted Quest in the middle schools last year and we feel it has been very successful,” he said. “It’s aimed primarily at teaching adolescents the skills they need to cope with the problems of growing up. With those skills, they have less need to fall back on drugs to get them through.”

Finding Money a Problem

On the Peninsula, school officials decided that coordinating existing programs was the best way to start. The problem for the financially strapped district was finding enough money to launch the effort, spokeswoman Nancy Mahr said.

She said the problem was solved, at least for now, by a $30,000 contribution from the Palos Verdes Educational Foundation, a group formed in 1980 to raise money for the schools.

That enabled the district to hire Beth Lundy, a drug education specialist, who is working with an advisory committee on setting up a network of PTA and other community organizations.

Lundy said last week that details of the new effort have not yet been worked out, but she expects to have programs under way through the fall and spring semesters. The programs will start at the fourth-grade level, she said.

Widely Used Programs

PTA-sponsored projects already widely used in district health education classes, Mahr said, are Project Self-Esteem, which originated at the Point Vicente Elementary School, and Sunrise, a Mira Catalina School program aimed at alcohol abuse.

At the high school level, Mahr said, school and PTA leaders give high marks to AWARE, a program based on the Rolling Hills campus and started in the late 1970s by desperate parents seeking help for their troubled teen-agers. Later generations of students joined in the effort by forming their own group, called Teen Advocates.

Sandi Ide, who heads the AWARE committee, said members of the student organization receive 10 weeks of training from health-care professionals in the community to qualify as counselors for other youngsters beset by such problems as drug use, depression, suicidal tendencies and pregnancy.

“The problem with drugs and alcohol should frighten anyone who cares about young people,” Ide said.

Drug Hot Line

Some of the Teen Advocates work with adult volunteers in answering calls to Help Line, one of the Los Angeles area’s first drug hot lines and now one of the few still in operation.

Help Line takes calls on a wide variety of problems, said Gertrude Barab, president of Help Line’s board.

“We’re still getting drug calls, but they rarely come from kids any more,” she said. “My guess is that the kids feel they understand what they are doing and can control it. They think their parents have a problem.”

Neighborhood Alert Against Drugs and Alcohol (NAADA), an offshoot of Nancy Reagan’s Chemical People project, is another of the active Peninsula groups that Lundy expects to involve in the district’s coordinated anti-drug campaign.

In Hermosa Beach, the school anti-drug program is headed by Principal Conny Ridgway. Indeed, she is the program, says Marilyn Corey, superintendent of the elementary district.

‘Had Some Problems’

“When Conny came to us five years ago, we had some problems with kids using drugs--the kind of thing that some people expected in laid-back beach towns,” Corey said.

“But Conny goes after that kind of thing with vigor, and so far as we know, we’ve got a clean campus now.”

Ridgway, who was born in Indonesia to Dutch parents, said she uses the “traditional European approach--firm discipline with rules that everyone knows and understands, and lots of work to keep everything clean and orderly.”

Enrollment in the Hermosa Beach system has shrunk to about 630 students, and the district will consolidate all of its operations at the remodeled Hermosa Valley campus later this year, Corey said.

Pena, the Banning High principal, said head football Coach Chris Ferragamo proposed voluntary testing of athletes after a discussion with his counterparts at Edison High in Orange County.

‘A Powerful Statement’

“It seemed like a way for our kids to make a powerful statement against drugs,” Pena said. “The community picked up on the idea right away, which I think means that people are beginning to realize at last how serious this problem has become.”

Another measure of strong support, she said, was the Los Angeles school board’s unanimous approval of the plan. She said five athletes will be selected at random each week for the tests, which will be conducted without cost to the district at San Pedro Peninsula Hospital.

“I sure don’t have anything to hide and I sure don’t need drugs,” said senior Dan Gunderson, who plays center on the school’s championship team.

Gunderson said he thinks other Banning athletes also will jump at a chance to exert peer pressure against drug use.

Community Colleges Clean

In contrast to the South Bay’s elementary and secondary schools, the area’s community colleges say they are aware of few drug problems on their campuses.

“A few years ago, you could hardly walk across the campus without getting high on pot and we used to have to call the Fire Department to subdue kids on PCP,” said El Camino spokeswoman Mary Ann Keating.

“But these days the big emphasis seems to be on health and keeping fit. Our physical education classes are full and you can’t get into the aerobics classes if you don’t get there early.”


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