Reinvented SADD attracts attention, extends its reach

Elementary schools involved in program

November 25, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon

What started in 1981 to educate teens about the dangers of drinking and driving is now an organization that reaches all the way down to elementary school kids, where messages about avoiding alcohol don't carry the same immediacy.

SADD, which entered the public consciousness as Students Against Driving Drunk, quietly became Students Against Destructive Decisions in 1997. The change was not only in name but also in focus. Since then, the group has expanded its mission and welcomed an ever-growing constituency.

In Baltimore County, the organization changed its name a few years before the national group, and every county middle school has a SADD club. The more than 30 county elementary schools with SADD clubs are the only ones in the country with such a distinction.

And SADD has found a new home in inner cities, including Baltimore, where its previous message against drunken driving lacked relevance with students who didn't have cars, said Michael M. Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County's Bureau of Substance Abuse and a member of SADD's national board.

"It has been kind of like changing the brand name of a product," Gimbel said. "SADD worked in the high schools for drunk driving. [We figured] it should be able to work with drugs and other destructive decisions students make. There is no age that's too young. You can always teach them something positive about themselves, about their bodies, about medicine.

"No matter what we do, people will always correlate SADD with drunk driving," he said. "But there are new kids who are growing up in the school system who didn't know it as a drunk-driving program."

That is the case for Liz and Laura Scott, fifth-grade twins at Chesapeake Terrace Elementary School in Edgemere. The girls are members of the school's large and growing SADD club, started four years ago by school nurse Paula Canaan-Reisz. It was the first elementary school chapter in the country.

"At this point, you're doing prevention," Canaan-Reisz said. By the time the children reach high school, it can be too late, she said.

"You're teaching them to take care of themselves so they're less likely to smoke cigarettes or do drugs," she said. "It teaches them a pattern of thinking to make good, healthy decisions.

"You can't focus on drinking and driving with these kids."

SADD began in Massachusetts 20 years ago as a response to the deaths of two teen-agers. According to SADD literature, teen-age deaths due to drinking and driving have decreased more than 60 percent since SADD was formed.

At Chesapeake Terrace, SADD meets during a weekly clubs period on Friday afternoons. Pupils who behave can take part in any number of club-period activities: Going running with the principal, playing board games, flying paper airplanes in the cafeteria.

Sixty-nine fourth- and fifth-graders give up their fun time for SADD lessons with Canaan-Reisz.

"She tells them: Use your heart. If you think in your heart it's wrong, it's wrong," said Jerri Boland, whose son, Mathew, is a fifth-grade SADD member. "They give up the games to come with her. It's amazing."

On a recent afternoon, gun safety was the topic. Canaan-Reisz knows that the parents in her community do a lot of hunting and that some are police officers.

She hands out a pledge she wants each child to sign. It reads: "If I see a gun I won't touch it. I will remember that any gun I see might be loaded. I know how important it is to keep myself safe."

She uses role-playing with the kids, a ruler standing in for a potentially loaded weapon. She pretends she has come to the home of one of the pupils and she begs the child to let her play with the gun. Wisely, they say, "No."

Each February, the club holds a safety fair. The pupils not only learn about safety, but also about responsibility. The fair is on a Saturday, and all who sign up must attend.

In previous years, club activities have included writing letters to lawmakers, watching government in action in Annapolis, discussing the dangers of smoking, learning about nutrition and practicing "refusal skills" they'll surely need in middle and high school.

"When I joined SADD, I found out you can't just say `No' when they ask you if you want a drink. You have to kind of get on their nerves and walk away," said Liz, one of the 10-year-old twins.

The broader focus of SADD has meant thousands more chapters and even more members.

"SADD is good peer pressure," Gimbel said.

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