Pitting Kindness Vs. Drugs

February 22, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Four Lansdowne-area schools are fighting a big problem in small ways.

They want to stop or prevent drug and alcohol abuse. And their strategies include pep rallies, midnight basketball and a kindness campaign whose mascot is a crab.

Fighting cocaine use, or even beer drinking, with kindness and rah-rah rallies may appear naive. But the people in charge of a new drug offensive in the southwestern Baltimore County community say their small, but carefully targeted projects have a chance of succeeding where big programs have failed.

"It's prevention by any means. If we never talk about drug abuse, that's OK. I believe there are a lot of means to that end," said Mary Jo Slowey, the social worker who coordinates the federally funded Drug-Free Schools project at Lansdowne High, Lansdowne Middle and Lansdowne and Baltimore Highlands elementary schools.

School officials say they don't see a high incidence of drug abuse, so they are particularly interested in prevention.

"The kids will tell you [that other] kids are using, but I don't see a lot of evidence of it," Ms. Slowey said. "I think use is high for alcohol."

"Research shows a direct link between school climate, community climate and drug and alcohol use," she added. So, the four schools are drawing in their communities through parent, clergy and police involvement.

The program started with an eight-day workshop that resulted in plans for each school that focus largely on improving students' self-esteem and combating peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol.

When young people are involved in sports in school, "in some worthwhile activity, their self-esteem grows," said Diane Goldian, principal of Lansdowne Middle. "We have a very good chance of not having them get involved in drugs or alcohol. It sounds very, very simple. But it's such a positive approach, I believe it works."

Some examples:

* Baltimore Highlands brought an environmental theme to its program. The children in class decide how they will improve self-esteem -- perhaps by not calling each other names or by using courtesy to show respect. They chart their progress on a "crab-meter," and that progress determines how fast their mascot, Clyde the Crab, moves around the school and into the "bay," a large drawing on the cafeteria wall.

* Lansdowne High is trying to combat student apathy by developing more clubs and groups for students and making it acceptable to get involved in school activities.

* At Lansdowne Middle, the Drug-Free team is planning to publish a list of after-school programs sponsored by churches, recreational centers and other groups.

"Some of the key hours for kids getting involved with drugs are after-school, when they are not supervised," said Ms. Goldian. "We want to make sure our kids have a menu of things to do."

* Lansdowne Elementary School has started a peer-mediation program, in which students help one another learn how to settle differences peacefully.

The schools are also working to improve attendance, increase volunteerism among parents, foster cooperation among students and staff and reduce teacher stress. In the spring, the four schools plan a combined pep rally.

Despite apathy and problems in areas with transient populations, Lansdowne is ideal for this approach, said Ms. Slowey, because many of the neighborhoods and families are stable and support is strong. "There's a community feel here," she said.

The programs, funded with a $75,000 grant, are new and officials say it's too early to gauge their effects. But the schools did survey their students about drug and alcohol use and will do so again in a year.

Ralph Perez, regional manager of the Northeast Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, which oversees the program in 12 states, said officials judge its effectiveness not only by the survey results, but also by the number of suspensions for drug and alcohol abuse and the number of disruptive incidents reported in schools.

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