Documentary finds optimism amid drugs


April 17, 1991|By Michael Hill

Arnold Shapiro first attracted national notice over a decade ago when he produced "Scared Straight," a documentary about a program in New Jersey that took potential juvenile delinquents behind bars and had convicts explain in no uncertain terms what life in jail was like.

It wasn't just the brutally descriptive language, words you usually didn't hear on television, that attracted attention to "Scared Straight," it was also the fact that Shapiro's script claimed an almost 100 percent success for the program.

It all seemed so simple. Take kids behind bars, let convicts scare TC the wits out of them, and the problem of juvenile crime is solved.

Of course, it's not so simple. Shapiro's success claims for the "Scared Straight" approach were disputed, and, a decade later, despite a plethora of such programs across the country, juvenile crime is still with us.

So is Shapiro. After the documentary, he produced a successful TV film on the "Scared Straight" program and a follow-up on the kids involved. Most lucratively these days, he's behind CBS' successful, and inexpensive, "Rescue 911."

Now he's got another independently distributed documentary. This one's about programs to prevent and treat drug abuse. Called "Over the Influence," it will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) tonight at 8 o'clock.

What's most important about "Over the Influence" is that Shapiro seems to have learned something in the 12 years since he made "Scared Straight": that is that there are no simple solutions to these complex problems.

"Over the Influence" presents a variety of approaches to keeping kids off drugs, and getting them off if they've already gotten on.

Though there are a few claims of impressive results, there are no promises of a panacea. "Over the Influence" makes clear that this is tough work.

But, the point of the show is to make clear that there are success stories out there, that drugs and alcohol do not claim all of our youngsters, that most of them living in the highest risk situations come through unscathed and that, with a little bit of help, even more will make it.

The first part, hosted by Tom Selleck, looks at the preventive programs. It begins at a no-nonsense program in the Bronx that simply explains the medical and legal consequences of drugs to elementary school students, driving home the point with a visit to the trial of a drug dealer and a hospital ward full of crack babies. It ends with the kids putting on a mock trial. Nothing fancy, but it certainly makes sense.

Other programs profiled are a California program that brings together whole families to combat the effects of alcoholic and drug-abusing parents, a rap team at a high school in Chicago that delivers anti-drug messages while instilling self-esteem in its members, a comprehensive drug education program in Kansas City, and a community-based after-school center in Little Rock, Ark.

The second part, hosted by Whitney Houston, is about treatment programs. It begins at a ranch in the Montana countryside that combines a 12-step approach with an Outward Bound-type program. Anyone who has ever seen a documentary about a treatment program will recognize the painful honesty of the group therapy sessions. Weeks of that, combined with working on the ranch, is followed by a three-day solo in the Montana woods during which the kids are forced to write an autobiography.

Other programs are an intensive therapeutic community in Hawaii described by its ex-addict founder as "emotional boot camp," a tough hands-on form of probation that offers close monitoring for at-risk teens in Minneapolis in return for keeping them out of jail, and a comprehensive program in San Diego County, Calif. to help addicts who are pregnant or new mothers to learn the parental skills that they were never taught, often one of the reasons they turned to drugs in the first place.

The point of "Over the Influence" is that there is no reason to throw up your hands in despair over the problems of drugs and alcohol. The narration given to Selleck and Houston emphasizes that the prevention programs are do-able and the treatment programs are accessible.

Indeed, their basic elements -- education and honesty -- can even be adopted by individual families. Other aspects can be used by schools and community groups.

"Scared Straight" promised a miracle and, of course, couldn't deliver. "Over the Influence" makes no such promises and that makes it a better documentary.

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