The ninth-graders packed into Elkton High School's classroom A3 on a recent morning were restless as Nick Tsourounis, a University of Maryland School of Pharmacy doctoral student, stepped up to talk with them about addiction and stimulants, with particular attention to cocaine.
But soon, amid the fidgeting, hair-twisting and averted eyes, the students began to listen as Tsourounis, in khakis and a button-down shirt, described the clinical effects drug use has on the human body and on human behavior.
"We aren't here to tell these kids to say no to drugs," explained Tsourounis, one of 12 pharmacy graduate students speaking that day to nine classes as part of a weeklong drug and alcohol education program, offered through the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy's Student Committee On Drug Abuse Education. "We're here to tell them why to say no to drugs. There's a big difference."
And the lessons he was there to deliver - complete with charts, bullet points and photos - seemed to hit home.
"The more often a person uses, the risk that a person will become dependent increases," Tsourounis told the class. He rattled off statistics. "[Of] marijuana [users], 8 to 10 percent [will become addicted]. Alcohol, 10 to 15 percent," he said, then asked, "Can anyone guess the substance with the highest risk of addiction?"
Hands shot up.
"Cocaine," said one boy in unison with another.
"Fifty percent," answered Tsourounis.
"Tobacco," Tsourounis said. "Sixty percent."
Next door, in classroom A5, first-year doctor of pharmacy student Paul Ku asked the class, "Anyone want to look at the life of an addict?"
The approximately two dozen students gave varying responses, but they listened as Ku read down the list of clinical signs and symptoms - anxiety, depression, nasal perforations, seizures - followed by projected photos of the faces of addicts with increasing degrees of addiction.
Guest teachers such as Tsourounis and Ku address more than 3,000 students annually in the state through the pharmacy school's program.
A flat fee of $500 covers travel and printing costs. Topics include principles of drug addiction; cocaine and other stimulants; alcohol and depressant drugs; marijuana and psychedelic drugs; and hot topics OxyContin and dextromethorphin. The student committee also offers a one-night intergenerational program for students and their parents.
Elkton High School is the only high school that takes part in the program, which mainly targets middle schools, "because by the time they get to high school it's generally too late," explained Tsourounis, who emphasized that students need the information as early as possible.
At Elkton, however, the drug education program is one of several units of study required for all freshmen as part of Cecil County's mandatory Freshman Seminar, a year-long curriculum of sessions meant to aid students in the transition from middle school to high school.
"We were looking for a program that would provide our students with an opportunity not only to know themselves better but also to make them more aware of the obstacles that may come their way and to make informed decisions. We believe this is a program that does that," said Karen Hammond, who oversees the school's Freshman Seminar.
Jeffrey Kang has taught the course for three years. During that time he, like the other doctor of pharmacy students, has been asked a broad range of questions, some of which he answers after consulting with colleagues or professors.
"Addressing the problem of drug addiction has to be a multidisciplinary approach. If the parents or siblings are not there, or if they are abusing drugs, it has to be another, neutral figure - a family member, friend, health care provider, anyone," said Kang. "And so, in addressing a kid's question, we have to attack it directly and give the most correct information."
First-year doctor of pharmacy student Dave Heirholzer agreed that realistic information is the key to reaching young people.
"It's clear that the `This is your brain on drugs' or simply `Drugs kill' statements don't work. Kids see people do illegal drugs, and those people aren't dropping dead," said Heirholzer. "We give them better quality information than they're going to get from their drug dealer. I tell them, `Look, whatever you know, we know more about it, and I want to tell you about it so you can make an educated decision.' And hopefully that will save them."
The students seem to appreciate the message. "Some teachers say, `Don't do drugs,' without ever explaining the dangers. But this was informative," said freshman Alexis Mpaka.
"It was awakening," said Amanda Koronik, also a freshman. "This is much more effective than the Heroin Alert program in middle school," she said. "It was cool that they aren't just standing there telling us not to do drugs. They are telling us what drugs will do to us if we choose to use them."