All of the approximately 600 seventh-graders in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will take part in a pilot project designed to warn children about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
The semester-long project will feature weekly sessions with adults and peer counselors who will incorporate videotaped lessons in the instruction.
Dr. James E. Gardner, a clinical psychologist who will direct the program, said students in their first year of junior high school were selected because they are most vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse.
"It is a pivotal time because students are leaving the protected world of elementary school, they are entering puberty and it is a time when they experience some of the greatest peer pressure," he said.
School officials will also use elementary school records to select some students for the project. Rebellious youngsters who have low grades and suffer from low self-esteem are especially likely to begin using drugs at an early age, Gardner said. The project brochure states that "research has shown that it is possible to effectively identify these 'high-risk' students based on elementary school records."
Parental permission will be sought to provide such students with additional counseling and tutoring, he said.
The program was developed by the Foundation for the Prevention of Drug Abuse by Children, a nonprofit corporation based in West Los Angeles. Gardner and Rodney Berle, the foundation's co-founders, presented the program to the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education at its Sept. 2 meeting and received quick approval to start sometime this month. The foundation has agreed to run the program without cost to the district.
The foundation raised the $150,000 needed to develop the curriculum with the help of a $50,000 contribution from Home Savings of America and donations from foundation board members, Gardner said. If the pilot project is successful, the foundation plans to expand it to other districts. The curriculum is also in use at the private Westlake School for Girls and the Bel-Air Prep School.
Santa Monica-Malibu Supt. Eugene Tucker said the program was approved because "it offers a number of things which sound very very good and goes beyond just providing information to helping youngsters make responsible decisions about their lives."
"It is the type of program that seeks to tackle the problem at its source," said school board member Dianne Berman. "(Seventh grade) is a real transitional time for kids and it is a good time for us to get them information about the dangers of drugs."
The importance of the counseling sessions outweighs some of the academic subjects children are required to take in school, according to Gardner.
"It is at least as important as teaching them English, science or history," he said. "We won't have a history if our children don't learn that taking drugs is wrong."
Gardner said the lectures will be given once a week during the semester by three counselors who will be assisted by college students pursuing degrees in counseling.