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Youngsters Learn That Playing It Safe Is No Game

January 15, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH PASADENA — Eugene Junette looks as if he has just stepped out of a police station or a radio patrol car. He is a barrel-chested man in a brown blazer and his hair is clipped shorter than a Beverly Hills lawn. But his mission in life, he says, is only passingly related to law enforcement.

He wants to teach the world's small children such ordinary precautions as not talking to strangers and not playing with guns and knives.

He does this by passing out the coloring books developed by his organization, Play It Safe International. The books contain pictures of children playing under the watchful eyes of parents and studying the locks on their doors and windows or turning down candy being offered by a stranger and engaging in a number of other everyday activities that could lead to danger.

Play It Safe has passed out 28.7 million coloring books to children all over the world in the past 11 years, Junette says. The books are published in 31 languages.

The organization, which is staffed by volunteers, was established in Fresno in 1976 by a group of civic leaders. It began distributing educational materials two years later, after 8-year-old Victoria De Santiago of Fresno was abducted and murdered, said Junette, 56, an electronics engineer and the organization's international chairman.

"We decided we needed a program that wasn't going to scare children to death," said Junette.

On Monday, Junette was passing out coloring books at Arroyo Vista School, where 7-year-old Phoebe Ho formerly attended second grade. The girl was abducted on Dec. 11 while walking to school, and her body was found a week later in a field in Riverside County.

The message in the books gets across, often with dramatic results, Junette said.

Saved From Molester

"We have 45 documented cases of situations where lives were saved," he said after a parents meeting Monday in South Pasadena Junior High School.

"Most recently, there was a kid in Fresno who wouldn't get in a car with a known sex molester. When the guy was arrested, he even had a gunny sack with him. The teacher felt that our coloring book had been helpful in teaching the kid what to do."

The books also warn children against playing with matches or taking medicines that are not administered by their parents.

But mostly Junette and his organization worry about the dozens of children who are abducted each year by strangers.

"The kooks will not stay away from your kids," Junette told parents. "So we're going to have to keep your kids away from the kooks."

At Arroyo Vista, about 400 children crowded into the school's assembly room, sitting cross-legged on the floor as Junette and South Pasadena Police Chief William Reese tried to reinforce the message in the books.

Keeping Mum

"Don't talk about family vacation plans in public," Junette said, pointing to a picture of a boy doing just that to a small audience gathered around a road map.

"Don't talk about family vacation plans in public," the 400 youngsters repeated in unison.

Reese took his turn at the front of the room. "Never take a ride with a stranger," he said.

"Never take a ride with a stranger," said the children.

Finally, ventriloquist Nancy Mitchell of Monrovia and her bashful dummy Harold, came out to urge the children to "be smart and play it safe."

Mixed Feelings

Then it was on to the next school. Junette and his entourage of a half-dozen volunteers covered eight schools in South Pasadena on Monday and Tuesday, as well as meeting with parents' groups both evenings.

Parents had mixed feelings about the program.

"One mother said she wasn't going to send her child to school the day of the program," said Ruby Chacon, the Arroyo Vista PTA member who invited Junette to the district. "She said she didn't want her daughter going through the trauma of living through Phoebe's tragedy again."

Sgt. Bob Dotts of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said there was little to report in the investigation of Phoebe Ho's death. He said investigators were engaged in "routine" detective work, checking family acquaintances, known sexual offenders and suspicious vehicles in the area near where the body was found.

He said that as many as 14 or 15 detectives, from both the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and the South Pasadena Police Department, could be working on the case at any one time.

'No Real Hot Leads'

"There are no real hot leads," he said.

Helen Cease, principal of the Arroyo Vista School, said the 420 students at her school had largely readjusted after a period of collective anxiety.

"Things are pretty much back to normal," she said. "We're watching for particular students who may be having emotional difficulties, providing individual counseling. On the whole, we're doing fine."

The anxiety extended considerably beyond the children of Arroyo Vista, said Mary Hodge, whose 9-year-old daughter, Jennifer, goes to Monterey Hills School.

"We're such a small community," said Hodge, whose husband is South Pasadena Councilman Jim Hodge. "Children get together through soccer teams, churches, piano lessons. My daughter had nightmares."

Feelings of Uncertainty

The difficulty of teaching children about the potential dangers in a community like South Pasadena, she added, is that they lead such tranquil lives.

"It's just a small town where kids have a lot of freedom," said Hodge. "Kids in my neighborhood travel around on bikes. They go up to the Thrifty and back. Now they don't know who they can say hello to any more."

"The shock syndrome is always a little stronger in a town like South Pasadena," said Junette. "The feeling may go a little deeper, because the town is more closely knit."

"We're having to make our children grow up a little sooner than we'd like to," added Hodge. "That means taking away some of your child's childhood. As a parent, that hurts."

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