The class of mostly 12- and 13-year-olds sat in silence as they listened to the question.
"How many of you have used drugs . . . marijuana, cocaine, alcohol or uppers?" the young man asked. Slowly, reluctantly, about half of the roughly 20 students raised their hands.
"If you start using drugs now, you can get old very quick. It can be a matter of life and death. You can die," cautioned the questioner who identified himself only as Brent.
Brent is 21 and a recovering drug addict. He, Mychele, 18, and Becky, 20--also recovering addicts--had come to talk with the students at Killingsworth Junior High School about the dangers of drugs, and to tell those already hooked how to seek help.
"If you have a problem, there is someone to talk to. You can talk to your teachers. You can trust them. They care," Brent said.
The three recovering addicts are part of a private chemical rehabilitation program called New Beginnings in Lakewood for both adolescents and adults.
They and more than 50 other experts came together recently to put on an all-day "Say Yes to Life--No to Drugs" program for the 570 students at Killingsworth in Hawaiian Gardens. Killingsworth is one of five junior highs in the 29-school, ABC Unified School District, which also serves Cerritos, Artesia, parts of Lakewood, Norwalk and Long Beach. It is a diverse area where families range from low- and moderate-income to upper-middle class.
Representatives from College Hospital in Cerritos, the Southeast Council on Alcoholism & Drug Problems, Alcoholics Anonymous and New Beginnings, also participated without pay.
ABC began offering a districtwide anti-drug curriculum after a 1986 survey showed that more than 45% of seventh-graders reported they drank beer at least once in a six-month period and 4% reported drinking weekly or more frequently. Conducted by Rodney Sager, dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, the survey disclosed also that by their junior year in high school, 22% of the ABC students said they had tried cocaine.
The survey showed "that we did have a problem. It wasn't any worse than any other community but we were determined to do something about it," said Betty McGinnis, district supervisor of health services.
There are anti-drug programs in each of the schools. Some, such as Killingsworth, have seminars in addition to regular classroom instruction, McGinnis said. This is the second year Killingsworth has devoted an entire school day to a seminar on drug and alcohol awareness, teaching how to resist peer pressure and gain self-esteem.
"The classes with the recovering youths are very popular. Our students listen to youngsters that are close to their age," said Patricio Mascorro, principal at Killingsworth.
"Today is a good day to talk about it because everyone is talking about drug problems," Mychele said.
One girl decided to speak out during the session with Brent and the others from New Beginnings. Her father constantly smoked marijuana, said the girl, who is about 13. He repeatedly swore to her that he would stop, then he would lock himself in the bathroom and smoke. When she confronted him about his habit he would beat her, she said.
Because her father lied, the girl continued, she no longer cared. She started to smoke marijuana regularly. She drank beer and whiskey with friends.
As the student spoke in very soft tones, barely above a whisper, her classmates--all between 12 and 14 years old--displayed little or no emotion as they sat and listened.
Another young boy spoke. His 18-year-old brother had offered him marijuana and then called him "a chicken" when he refused to take it. Finally, he gave in to his brother's wish.
Another male student stated that he and friends often stole liquor from his parents' liquor cabinet.
In an adjacent room, students were learning from Lynne Appel about the tribulations of children from alcoholic families.
"Dad is an alcoholic. He belts mom. He punches the kids. The kids think it is their fault. They feel guilt. They do not communicate. They withdraw," said Appel, executive director of the Southeast Council on Alcoholism & Drug Problems.
Children must understand that there is help, that teachers, counselors and school psychologists are willing to listen and provide advice, Appel said.
"Children of alcoholics must understand that they are not alone," she said.
At the end of the day, three or four students went to the office of district psychologist Frank Farfan so they could talk in confidence.
"We talk to the students. We contact the parents. We make the parents and students aware of the available treatment programs," Farfan said.
"The whole emphasis is to make the students feel better about themselves. If they have made mistakes and are using drugs, we provide them with the information where they can get help. We involve the parents," Farfan said.
"We let the students know they are not alone," added Mascorro. "They can come to us and we will provide help."