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Jordan High Teens Learn to Fight Drugs, Despair by Lending an Ear

March 15, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Jordan High School's peer communications class broke into small groups for a special exercise last week.

Their assignment was to take turns listening to each other, then repeating not the words but the feelings expressed. The idea was to become more adept at getting other students to open up about their problems.

"People out there need help and if I can help them I want to be there," said Sumita Sabarwal, 18, who, along with her 36 classmates, will put training into practice in about two weeks when she begins offering individual appointments to fellow teens who are troubled. "I can't solve the problem for them, but just being there to listen can help."

In fact, the non-credit class--the first of its kind in the Long Beach Unified School District--is part of an array of efforts at Jordan that have attracted attention throughout the district. Begun under a grant to fight drug abuse, the program has expanded to deal with what experts believe to be the very root of addiction itself: the whole span of teen-age ills ranging from low self-esteem to suicidal depression and bad family relations.

'Breaking New Ground'

"They are setting an example and breaking new ground," said Judi McEachen, speaking of the Jordan program. Now vice principal of Hughes Junior High School, McEachen until last month was coordinator of the district's drug suppression program.

That program got its start in 1985 when the district received a $257,000 grant from the federal government and the Long Beach Police Department to set up anti-drug programs at its five high school campuses.

To make a real impact on the problem, district coordinators decided to concentrate on alleviating the personal troubles--particularly low self-esteem--that studies have shown to be at the heart of most teen-age drug abuse. And today each campus has a drug intervention team consisting of a teacher, counselor, administrator, nurse, police officer, parent and, in some cases, a student, whose job is to plan and coordinate the school's anti-drug and pro-self-esteem program.

Those programs have varied widely, according to McEachen, ranging from large all-school assemblies to ambitious publicity campaigns. What has made Jordan's efforts unusual, she said, is the emphasis on peer counseling and the sheer scope of the participation.

"Jordan is the first to come close to the goal," said Larry Collins, drug intervention coordinator at Poly High School, which, like several other schools, has sent a representative to Jordan to take a look at its program. "Other schools are working toward that."

Variety of Groups

In addition to the peer communications class--which has been meeting weekly since October--Jordan students can choose from a variety of informal lunchtime or after-school support groups, each facilitated by a teacher and designed to promote a sharing of personal problems and concerns.

At one recent meeting, for instance, a student described her rage following a fight on campus with a boy she felt had been harassing her.

"Things that to others seem like nothing are a big deal to me," said Krissy Huggins, 17. "This (group) is a place I can go where I'm not going to get knocked down for who I am. I can get lots of hugs. If I want to cry I can cry, and if I want to laugh I can laugh."

And Phillip Lopez, a 17-year-old confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, said he joined the group earlier this year after family problems forced him to seriously consider overdosing on sleeping pills. "I had to do something," he said. "This group has helped a lot. Just talking . . . has helped."

Madelyn Fielding, a counselor and the campus drug intervention coordinator who is one of the project's architects, estimates that about 150 Jordan students have attended such groups or been involved in some aspect of the program.

District officials say they have no hard data on the extent of drug abuse on Long Beach campuses. But at Jordan, which they say is typical of the high schools in the district, officials report that an average of 10 students a month are disciplined for drug or substance abuse, an increase of about 35% over the past three years. Particularly irksome, they say, is the increasing number of students caught selling the stuff.

Dealers Carry Beepers

"We confiscate four or five beepers a month," said Clyde Phillips, a staff assistant in charge of enforcing campus rules. By carrying beepers, he said, student drug dealers can be contacted by their customers, call them from campus pay phones, and arrange to deliver the goods off campus during a lunch break or after school.

"Some of these kids make as much as $1,000 a week," Phillips said. "I've picked up ninth-graders driving Cadillacs with $900 in their pockets."

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