School programs helping combat drugs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 25, 1999

LEONARD GRAY and ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / December 25, 1999

Who knows what teen-agers are thinking, especially about illegal drugs, drinking, smoking, violence and casual sex? Teen-agers know. Most ofthem are making sensible decisions about the temptations hurled their way. Some bow to the peer pressure. A few are trying to help those whoneed help.

At Destrehan High School, Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, is headed by Brooke Crocker, president, and Ashley McDermott, vice-president.

The young ladies see a lot of the poor decisions made by some of their peers, and they see the entertainment industry as fueling many of those poor decisions.

“It’s become so mainstream,” McDermott said. “Alcohol is so easy to gethold of,” Crocker added.

When people talk about children growing up too fast these two agree, and they say the most crucial time, especially for girls, is the summer before middle school students move up to high school.

“It’s that first party,” Crocker said. “It’s chain reaction and it becomesagain and again as their self-esteem drops. Freshman year is the hardest.”Once guilt sets in, then resignation and low self-esteem grips the young person to keep them feeling trapped in destructive behavior. “They don’trealize it’s not just them,” McDermott said.

*** Elton Oubre, supervisor of Safe and Drug Free Schools for the St. John theBaptist Parish School System, said there are two major factors involved in keeping schools and their students drug-free.

“Education is a big factor,” said Oubre, “and we have found that a majority of the kids want to be part of the solution. Adults don’t always have theright answers, and we are finding out that the kids might have the right answers.”The local school system does have random drug searches and random metal-detector searches, and it recently purchased a drug-sniffing dog.

But Oubre said these are only short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

“We are trying to get away from intervention and stress prevention,” Oubre said.

For the past three years the St. John Parish School Board has institutedseveral programs to educate teachers, parents and students about drugs.

“We have a strong educational push to teach teachers how to recognize drug use,” said Oubre, “and they in turn teach the students how to spot other students who are using.”The Sheriff’s Office also comes in and lectures the students on the perils of drug use, with the backing of the D.A.R.E program.Students found to be in possession of illegal drugs are expelled for one to two years, but they are not forgotten.

“It is a state law that we have to expel them,” said Oubre, “but it is also a state law that we have to send them to an alternative school.”In St. John Parish, expelled students go to the Re-Direction Center inGaryville. While at the Re-Direction Center they go to normal classes andare also counseled by a resident social worker. The parents of the childrenare also encouraged to go to counseling and try and get their children into drug rehabilitation.

“We try to provide these students with programs to help them,” Oubre said.

“We do not want to throw them out of the system. They are lost to us if wedo that.”*** Typical of the effort to head off substance abuse and other destructive problems before they start are the programs at Norco Elementary in cooperation with its DARE officer, Burley McCarter.

The aim of the substance-abuse prevention program, at this grade level, is to implant values, character-building and self-esteem, according to counselor Julie Abreo and administrative assistant Lasca Anderson.

All this is aimed at preventative education, to steer students away from drugs and build their confidence and ability to cope.

Working with the officers, a responsive program is established, crafting a relationship with the students to where they trust and are able to confide their concerns.

“We share issues and concerns,” Abreo said. “Every homeroom does this,including communication. The focus is to build self-esteem.”St. John Parish schools are also trying to instill character and self-esteem in its students.

Oubre believes if children are taught certain values at an early age, it will help in preventing drug use and other anti-social behavior in later years.

That is why the school board has instituted a program called Character Counts, which teaches children in elementary schools the “six pillars of character” – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Here in Louisiana, Character Counts is funded by LSU and the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service. It’s aim is to prove that if character isinstilled in the younger children, they will know what to do when faced with temptations such as drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Sarah Williams, who tutored a group of St. John Parish school teachers inCharacter Counts, said the idea is simple.

“If you teach the six pillars of character, these children will have the strength of character to do the right thing for the right reason,” Williams said.

Williams is also teaching junior and senior high school students so that they can teach the younger children.

Melanie Burl, a representative of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service in St. John Parish, explained this method.”Young kids will listen to other children better than they will listen to adults,” said Burl. “If they see other kids seriously following the sixpillars of character, the young ones will follow suit.”Another program started in St. John schools is Life Skills Training forsixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. This program provides students withthe necessary skills to resist peer pressure, develop self-esteem, cope with social anxiety and recognize the consequences of substance abuse.

“We are trying to teach the students how get along, teach them social skills that will help them be successful in life,” said Oubre.

*** That’s what SADD is all about.

SADD began as Students Against Drunk Driving, but it soon became apparent drinking was only one of several peer-pressure problems affecting young people. Illegal drugs, binge drinking and sex are the mostprevalent problems, and often young people find it hard to get out once they are trapped in those behavior patterns.

SADD began mostly as an activity-oriented group, putting on fund-raisers and fairs, holding poster contests and the like. Nowadays, according tonew DHS SADD sponsor Dana Spillman, education is the role of SADD’s future.

At every meeting members discuss subjects such as binge drinking, talking about why people do it, how they can reach their friends who do it and reinforcing their own decisions to keep straight.

Spillman is proud of her officers and the stand they take.

“Brooke is very popular with every crowd, but there’s not that many people who are so bold,” she said.

Crocker added, “You have to come across as a friend, not as a mom.”She said the best safeguard against destructive decisions by teen-agers is good parenting skills. “The best thing my mom ever told me was if I wasever faced with something I couldn’t handle to call her!” SADD has guest speakers at their meetings and recently had a male college student who talked about accidently killing someone with his car while driving drunk. Another guest speaker lost his wife when a drunk driverstruck the bedroom of his house one night.

“We want to get to the heart of what SADD is all about,” Spillman said.

Destrehan High has about 75 active SADD members, out of an average enrollment of 1,500 students. Not enough to make an impact, one mayassume.

Not so, McDermott said.

“Peer pressure works both ways,” she said, adding that positive examples do have an impact and SADD is making a good impression among the student body. “It’s not anti-fun or anti-cool.”Crocker said she has shown up at parties and seen people hide their drugs or beer. “I’m ‘Miss Mom,'” she said, smiling.”You can still go to parties,” Crocker said. “Just don’t drink or do drugs.Just don’t do something that’ll hurt the rest of your life.”*** Oubre believes drugs and violence go hand in hand and getting rid of one will decrease the other. In order to cut down on violence, each publicschool in St. John Parish has a Crisis Review Committee which monitorsdiscipline, drug and weapon use in the school. The idea is to prevent acrisis before it happens, to find the disruptive student and help them to deal with their problems before they get involved in drugs or violence.

The idea of prevention seems to have worked fairly well in the St. JohnParish schools.

Yes, there are still some drugs in the schools, “mostly marijuana,” said Oubre, but he goes on to say that “drugs are not a major problem in our schools.”As proof, he said that drug-use statistics have steadily gone down during the past three years, and he expects things to get better in the future.

“We are starting an advisory council in January with both teachers and students, and we hope to get a lot of input from the students on how to solve the problem.”

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