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A sad dose of reality at an anti-drug assembly

A third-grader raised her hand over and over again last Thursday during Deltona Elementary School's "Drug Free _ That's Me" assembly. Guest speaker Rick Foti of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office never noticed.

He was too busy showing them rolling papers, small bags of marijuana, pipes and pills. Experts believe that if young children know what drugs look like, they will tell adults if they see something suspicious.

When the assembly ended, I asked the girl what she had wanted to say.

Using her slender fingers to push her eyes open wide, she said, "I wanted to tell him that when you get high, your eyes get real big, and they look like this," she said. "Your eyes get kind of funny, and then you know you're high."

I asked her how she knew so much about getting high. She half-smiled, squinted and thought for a moment.

" 'Cause my mom gets high," she said.

"Oh," I said. "Really?"

"Yeah," she said. "But I think she may be stopping soon. She used to do it once a week. Now maybe not that much.

"It'll get better," she said, then trotted back to class with the rest of the 8- and 9-year-olds.

Two other boys whispered as they walked together. One boy was telling the other about his older brother's friend who got high.

"He's stupid," the boy said.

"I know, I hate marijuana," the other boy said.

During the assembly, another boy said his father fired an employee who had "gotten high and wrecked his car and got into trouble."

As I watched the children head to class, I couldn't help but feel sad. They seemed too young, too innocent for such big lessons. How can 8- and 9-year-olds comprehend that it is okay for adults to buy cigarettes and alcohol, but not marijuana or cocaine.

I began to wonder if early elementary school drug prevention programs are good, or if they are just causing more confusion.

Can cute slogans _ "Just Say No" and "Drug Free _ That's Me" _ make a lasting impression on youngsters who later may be swayed to experiment with drugs?

One counselor says working with addicts has convinced her that education is the first step in preventing drug abuse, but it is not the only line of defense.

"Statistics and research, and my own experience has convinced me that early education gives kids more of a chance to be resilient if and when they choose to use drugs," said Janice Ferguson-Smith, one of the school district's substance abuse counselors.

However, students need more support from parents, friends, church leaders and community members, Ferguson-Smith said.

The middle and high school health curriculum includes drug awareness and prevention, she said. The Sheriff's Office also offers the fifth-grade classes a Junior Deputy program, which includes education about drug abuse.

"At about the age of 12 or 13, kids develop a vulnerability, a weakness to pressures that may lead them into the experimentation of using. If they receive constant support and are surrounded by good role models, their chances of becoming addicted become less and less," Ferguson-Smith said.

Last weekend, a friend said she caught her 13-year-old son smoking marijuana before he left for school. She is a single parent who works nights. Her son often spends weekends with his father.

The boy said that his father had "turned him on to pot" during the summer. How can this boy resist trying marijuana when his own father is telling him that it is okay?

"Drug abuse runs in the family," Ferguson-Smith said. "Recovery involves more than just the kid who is using."

Prevention is possible, if programs such as the one at Deltona Elementary School continue, and if adults are supportive. But because there is not enough money for programs in every elementary school, outside groups will have to take on the responsibility, she said.

"As a community, we need to buy into this type of education, this is an investment that we just can't pass up."