They crowd eagerly around a desk, 12-year-olds with freshly scrubbedfaces and crisp uniforms, to talk about growing up in the '90s.
Jostling each other, the seventh-graders at St. Mary's Elementary School in Annapolis tell their stories -- of an alcoholic uncle, a brother who sneaks cigarettes, the neighborhood teen-ager caught smoking pot, the party where all the kids drink, and the girl who overdosed.
For three years, the Annapolis Police Department has been runningthe widely praised Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program with fifth-graders at 11 county schools. Now, they're trying to reach pre-teens, the ones who face the most peer pressure.
Seventh-graders are at an age where they "really begin to face the challenge," explains Dianne Garrott, the school guidance counselor. Increasing their self-esteem and teaching them to avoid peer pressure is the solution,she says. "That's what drug education is."
Officers Thomas Hannonand Karen Youssi meet every Friday with the students at St. Mary's. Unlike the fifth-graders who ask wide-eyed questions about what marijuana looks like, the seventh-graders in the pilot program want to know much more.
They realize that smoking cigarettes causes bad breath and stains teeth. What they want to know is how to avoid lighting up with the rest of the girls in the mall.
They can give the right answers to the consequences of drinking alcohol or using marijuana. What they need help with is how to turn down a beer without looking like "a loser."
These are tough questions, Officers Hannon and Youssi readily admit. And the other issues that concern the 210 students participating in the 12-week program -- child abuse, sexual assault, divorce, teen pregnancy and crime -- also have no easy answers.
"I'm honest with them," Youssi says. "I like the interaction with the kids. I think I'm able to relate my childhood with theirs, and I think by relating, I am able to reach the children."
She draws on her childhood experiences to relate to the children, telling them about howshe caved in to peer pressure to buy a popular brand of sneakers, only to discover that the style was out by the time she did.
"Kids are kids," she says. "I think we can relate to them."
The seventh-graders say it helps just to talk. The DARE books and the advice from the police officers give them a way out, a game plan to cope with thepressure to smoke or drink.
"It makes you feel more self-assured," says Katie Kreidler. Adds her friend, Jackie Tyler, "It makes you feel like you won't have to do it if you go to a party where everybody's doing it."
The program may be expanded to the public schools inthe next year if enough money is raised and enough interest is shown. St. Mary's $4,000 program was paid through private donations.
The Police Department is seeking support from non-profit groups and private donors just to keep next year's regular DARE program running.
The program costs at least $9,000 a year, and up to $12,000 when T-shirts, posters and other trinkets are added, says Lt. Gary Simpson.
"Given the drug situation, I want to be able to go with all the bells and whistles," he says. "There's no sense in turning around now, when we're really beginning to have an impact."
To avoid an annual scramble for money, Simpson says he is considering setting up a foundation to provide long-term funding.
Most teen-agers in the city, whether they're from public housing or rich waterfront homes, experiment first with alcohol, Simpson says. Marijuana and PCP surfaces in the city from time to time, often among college students and young couples, he adds. And, in the poorest neighborhoods, crack cocaine remains the biggest problem.
The mostly middle-class students at St. Mary's may not be exposed to the violence of drug-plagued neighborhoods.But they can tell you about similar dangers, about the subtle but powerful lure of popularity and freedom that alcohol and drugs seem to offer. And they quickly dispel the notion that parochial schools somehow shield children.
The overwhelming majority of St. Mary's students deny that they ever drink with friends, but they all know of "kegger" parties, and they've all seen friends sneaking cigarettes.
"Ithink people want to fit in, that's why they do it," says Amanda Rose, 13, of Annapolis.