Parents planning to pick up where Toma left off
You’re in a lot of trouble in this town. Do you realize what your kids are doing? You would fall off your chairs, if you knew what they told me they’re doing. Listen to me! What the hell good is all your money, if you’re losing your kids?
--David Toma, anti-drug crusader
It was near the end of a weeklong crusade among high school students on the affluent Palos Verdes Peninsula, and David Toma had turned his fiery anti-drug rhetoric on their parents.
And the parents at last Thursday night’s session in the Rolling Hills High School gym, like their youngsters at school assemblies earlier in the week, responded to the former vice and narcotics officer’s message with a standing ovation.
“I’ve never seen anything like it on this hill,” said Norman La Caze, head of a parents group that sponsored the Toma event. “More than 4,500 people turned out for parents night and that’s got to be by far the biggest gathering in the Peninsula’s history.”
Curiosity about the legendary figure whose work as an undercover cop inspired the “Toma” and “Baretta” TV series, the attraction of a speaker with a charismatic style and a lot of lobbying by students who wanted their parents to hear him all contributed to the unusual interest, according to La Caze and school district officials.
La Caze, a Peninsula developer, said this week that he and other Toma committee members have received dozens of calls from people wanting to help keep the anti-drug momentum going.
“Friends and people I hardly know have been calling me to say they want to contribute money, get involved in some way,” La Caze said. “Toma raised their awareness and concern. Now we have to build on that for the long term.”
La Caze said his group is considering such measures as setting up storefront counseling centers, sending psychologists and other experts to talk to PTA groups and using various advertising media to promote a community consensus against drugs.
Dan Smith, head of the South Bay Juvenile Diversion Project, said his organization will send therapists to the Peninsula’s high school campuses three times a week and sponsor support groups for students who want to quit drugs and alcohol. He said the special needs of youngsters with alcoholic parents also will be considered.
“The kids told us that this is the kind of help they need,” Smith said. “We need to provide a treatment component that works hand-in-hand with preventive education.”
Mel Olsen, a veteran Peninsula family and marriage therapist who joined about 30 other community professionals in counseling youths during the Toma week, agreed that the anti-drug crusader’s message could soon be forgotten.
“Toma was the catalyst,” he said. “He pushed the kids in the direction of getting honest about themselves. But if you take drugs out of their lives, you’ve got to replace those chemicals with something else.”
Providing that something else, he said, will take a lot of counseling and education, for both children and parents, and a rebuilding of family and community values.
“The depth of loneliness and isolation in these kids is frightening,” he said. “Dealing with the problem--and it’s a national problem--ultimately goes back to the parents.”
Other schools that Toma visited reported similar experiences: a tremendous boost in awareness, followed by a struggle to keep well-intentioned efforts from dying out.
“Our programs are still going strong,” said Patti Reid, leader of a parents group that sponsored a Toma week in the Santa Barbara school district in early 1986. “We’re doing a lot of counseling and education and the use of marijuana and other drugs has dropped. Alcohol remains a major problem.”
Wayne Mickaelian, an assistant principal at the Fountain Valley High School, also reported continuing problems with alcohol along with an apparent drop in the use of drugs. He said Toma was there during the 1985 Christmas season.
“David Toma came through here like a cyclone and really stirred things up,” he said. “We had some programs in place before he arrived and we’ve added others, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of sustaining the effort.”
But, Mickaelian added, “drugs and alcohol are such constants in our society. It’s like a leaky dam. As fast as you plug one hole, another springs a leak. In my view, the threat of nuclear bombs is nothing compared to the problem we have in our own backyard.”
Local friends of Toma said he was hospitalized after his Peninsula visit, apparently suffering from exhaustion and an old back injury. He is scheduled to return to the area on June 1 for a weeklong visit at the South Bay Union High School District.