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Red Ribbon Week at Schools Targets Substance Abuse

Addiction: A Moorpark High sophomore has organized special activities to raise students' awareness of the negative impact that alcohol and drugs can have on their lives.

October 26, 1998|JENNIFER HAMM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A car mangled in a drunk driving accident will sit at the center of Moorpark High School's campus all this week--a stark reminder of the dangers of drinking and driving.

And one day during the week, a small group of students will paint their faces white and remain silent to represent the dead.

"That way, you really realize what it would be like to lose a friend," said Alex Jones, a sophomore who has coordinated this week's events at Moorpark High.

Red Ribbon Week--a nationwide awareness campaign that will be observed at schools throughout the county through Friday--is designed to show students at every level the impact that drugs and alcohol can have on their lives.

Along with the more startling images of the devastation of substance abuse, there are simpler ones.

Students pin ribbons to their backpacks and are given red lollipops with slogans attached that read, "Don't be a sucker. Don't do drugs."

The week at Moorpark High will also be peppered with speakers who are recovering drug addicts and with DARE officers, urging the teenagers to think twice before getting involved with the wrong crowd.

Such efforts are needed because drugs and alcohol are a fact of life in high school, Alex said.

"It's a problem, and that's the main reason we're doing this," he said.

He hopes his peers will learn to make their own decisions when it comes to experimenting.

"The whole impression of people forcing you to do drugs, I don't think that's true," Alex said. "Basically, it's a person's individual choice. Sure they can put pressure on you, but when it comes down to it, it's your choice."

Planners of Red Ribbon Week activities around the state say they know the struggle youngsters face when it comes to making choices about drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

"There's a lot of peer pressure," said Tilana Green, a program analyst in the Healthy Kids Program Office at the California education department. "The majority of students, when they start smoking, it's sixth-graders. Everybody thinks it's cool."

Started in 1985 to commemorate the efforts of Drug Enforcement Agent Enrique Camerena, who was killed by drug traffickers in Mexico, the week is geared to combat the cool image that drinking and taking drugs has for young people.

The state education department works with the nonprofit Californians for a Drug-Free Youth to support events and activities at nearly every school in the state.

More than 20,000 educator manuals were mailed early last month that offer strategies on preventing drug use.

And Ventura County got $691,276 this year for programs to support safe and drug-free schools.

"There are kids that are locked into thinking that . . . everybody's using," said Ray Lozano, program manager and senior trainer for Californians for Drug-Free Youth. "This gives them an opportunity to realize they don't have to use."

In recent years, some people have criticized Red Ribbon Week and DARE programs.

A 1995 study found that drug-prevention programs did not persuade most of 5,000 students interviewed to stay away from drugs.

The study, conducted by a coalition of researchers and professors, talked to seventh- through 12th-graders at 240 schools nationwide.

And a recent government survey found that the number of teenagers using drugs has increased in the past few years.

Released in August, the annual National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that 11.4% of 12- to 17-year-olds had used some illicit drug within the past month.

In 1996, that figure was at 9%.

But Lozano maintains that marijuana use is down overall.

He also disputes the 1995 study and says that awareness programs do make a difference in preventing kids from getting involved with drugs.

"A lot of kids get into drugs to find something that's missing and to mask pain," he said. "And drugs do both of those pretty quickly."

Alex agrees that marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol are among the more popular drugs at his school.

And he knows that for some students, Red Ribbon Week, with the theme "I've Got Better Things to Do Than Drugs," will be something of a joke.

"No matter if you think that what we're saying is a bunch of malarkey, hopefully it will make you stop and think," he said.

Alex thinks it's too important not to talk about the impact drugs can have.

"It really just slows down how much you're able to learn," he said. "It can change a person completely."

Lozano knows that it takes more than red ribbons, suckers and totaled cars to keep kids from doing drugs.

It takes having meaningful, strong connections with people.

"If kids have positive relationships in their lives . . . we see that the rate goes down on them starting to use," he said.

That's why the nonprofit group has programs like Youth to Youth and Responsible Educated Adolescent Leaders, or REAL, to train young people to serve as powerful role models for their peers.

Every day in the newspaper, "you see there has been death, destruction or violence that is either drug-related or drunk-driving" related, said Green of the state department of education. "It's something that touches everyone's life one way or another."

Although Alex knows some will just ignore the message, he hopes his monthlong preparation for this week's events will pay off with a positive impact on the students of Moorpark High School.

"I think for the majority of the kids it will have an effect, if they really stop and think," Alex said. "Sure, there are going to be a percentage that are just going to turn off when we start. There's always going to be people like that."

Any parent, teacher or group interested in learning more about drug and alcohol prevention is encouraged to call Lozano at (916) 927-989. His e-mail is rl4dfy@aol.com

Contact your local school or school district to find out what events are planned.

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