The 30 second-graders at Northwood Elementary School in Irvine fidgeted off and on. One boy plastered his adhesive-backed name tag across his mouth. Two girls giggled. But when the children were asked if they wanted to hold the puppets that the teacher had been cradling, all hands shot into the air.
Two of the hand puppets portray cats. There is an owl, too. And a bird. Then there is the yellow dog in the green vest. That's "Recovering Reggie," a "cross-addicted alcoholic."
The puppets are the centerpiece of the Beginning Alcohol and Addictions Basic Education Studies (BABES), a program designed for children as young as preschoolers to promote self-esteem and keep them away from drugs, including alcohol, later in life.
"When we go out and talk to adults," said Dave Larson, executive director of the Orange County branch of the National Council on Alcoholism, "when I say to you, 'Here's a program to prevent alcoholism for kindergarten children,' do you know what the normal reaction is? 'My God, has it gotten so bad that we have to talk to kindergartners about this?' So the answer is, 'Yes, it's gotten that bad, but no, we've always had to talk to them; we just didn't know we had to talk to them.' "
BABES is one of a number of programs that have sprung up across Orange County in recent years in an effort to keep students drug-free or offer them help if they already use drugs, including the most consumed drug of all--alcohol:
Teen-agers band together for "safe ride" programs to make sure an adolescent who has had too much to drink will get home safely and not get behind the wheel of a car. Schools run "sober graduation nights," spending thousands of dollars to keep graduates on campus for a supervised night of alcohol-free fun.
More than two dozen high schools and nearly 20 junior highs sponsor Peer Assistance Leadership (PAL) courses, training students to help their classmates with questions or problems relating to drugs, suicide or sexual problems.
Parents conduct self-esteem classes for elementary school students, "helping kids recognize their own uniqueness, that they're special people," in the words of Bert Simpson of the Orange County Education Department.
Hospitals running inpatient treatment centers for abusers of alcohol and other drugs dispatch recovering alcoholics or addicts to lecture at schools in the belief that students will more readily listen to those their own age who have "been there."
Educators and program directors say the attempt to reach students of all ages is a reflection of national concern in recent years about drug use. Many credit two groups--Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded eight years ago, and Students Against Drunk Driving--with turning up the pressure against alcohol abuse.
Whether teen-age drinking is increasing, decreasing or holding steady depends on the beholder.
"It's hard to know if drinking is increasing, or if awareness in the community and acceptability of kids talking about their drinking is getting more widespread," said Michael Dean, assistant director of the Positive Action Center at the Healthcare Medical Center of Tustin.
What has changed, he said, is the recognition by adults and adolescents alike that there is such a thing as a teen-age alcoholic, a notion all but unheard of until recently.
Dean's program and others send recovering alcoholics into the schools to talk to students.
Still, it can be difficult to get teen-agers to listen to lectures, as every parent knows. And interviews with a dozen recovering alcoholics, ages 12 to 19, showed that the students who most need the information about alcohol abuse are often least likely to get it.
Tim, 16, said that at his school, "they have a week called 'Just Say No' or something weird like that. It was nothing."
Melissa, also 16, said that the programs at her school "were not strong enough to get through teen-agers' heads. They need to be; they really need to show what can happen. They need to be real strong about it."
Chris Soskin, a 20-year-old recovering addict who works as an outpatient counselor for the Youth and Family Recovery Center of La Palma Intercommunity Hospital, runs a dual program at nearby Kennedy High School in the Anaheim Unified School District. Students with questions about their own use of drugs or alcohol can voluntarily join one group; those concerned by the drug use of their parents, friends or others can join another. The groups meet once a week.
Soskin said "most of the schools in Orange County have a chemical abuse prevention program," which includes training volunteer teachers as counselors.
"Then when we come in, we supplement them (with) the training that we do," he said. He brings recovered alcoholics with him to talk to the students because "probably the most effective way to reach (students) is to have someone their own age and in their space talk to them."