Reversing children's attitudes about drugs

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Among fourth graders surveyed by a national publication for schoolchildren, 50 percent believed that some, most, or all of their peers have tried marijuana. Forty percent believed that some or all have tried cocaine, and 75 percent believed that some or all have tried beer, wine, or liquor at least once. Most reported substantial ''peer pressure'' to try both alcohol and drugs.

The survey was conducted by Weekly Reader Publications, whose magazines reach 8 million children, from preschoolers through 12th grade. Its findings are based on responses from 500,000 schoolchildren nationwide, grades 4-12, who filled out survey questions in their classrooms. Of these, 100,000 were closely analyzed, focusing on the younger grades, for the final survey figures. Children reported drug and alcohol use among their peers, but were not asked to report if they drank or took drugs themselves.

''To our knowledge, this is the first large-scale study of young children's attitudes on drugs and alcohol,'' says Terry Borton, editor-in-chief of Weekly Reader Publications. The basic conclusion of the study, he says, is that ''a fundamental shift of attitudes has to take place that makes drugs seem like a less necessary and glamorous part of growing up. . . . Knowledge is not the problem. Attitudes are the problem.''

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The Weekly Reader findings are to be released today (April 25) at a White House press conference dealing with the pervasiveness of drug and alcohol use among young children. In conjunction with that, Carlton Turner, director of the White House Drug Abuse Policy Office, will announce a new, privately funded, ''President's Drug Awareness Program'' for grade-schoolers.

The program will try to attack the attitude problems underscored by Dr. Borton. Youngsters will be urged to reconsider the idea that drugs are socially acceptable.

Already, one million copies of ''The New Teen Titans,'' a drug-awareness kit based on a specially created comic book by DC comics, have been sent by the Department of Education to fourth graders in 35,000 schools across the nation. The comic books are packaged along with student activity guides, posters, teacher guides, and a ''certificate of heroism.'' A letter from First Lady Nancy Reagan inside the comic books urges each child to be ''a hero . . . in the battle against drug abuse and pledge to stay drug-free.''

A cover letter to school principals, also signed by Mrs. Reagan, mentions her visits to drug rehabilitation centers, and urges administrators to help solve the drug problem. Eventually the comics are to reach all schoolchildren in Grades 3-6. They're funded by the Keebler Company, a maker of cookies and other baked goods, and Warner Communications Company, the publishers of DC Comics. A drug-awareness coloring book for kindergarten through third grade is on the drawing board as well, according to a White House spokesman.

A similar effort is about to be launched by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a branch of the government's Public Health Service. In May, the institute will launch a national ''It's O.K. to Say No'' campaign of television and radio public-service spots aimed at 11- to 13-year-olds. Other spots will target teen-agers, warning them of the dangers of mixing marijuana and driving. In all, NIDA is sending out 2,800 sets of radio spots and 800 sets of TV spots to state drug-abuse agencies across the country for distribution to broadcasters.

The spots will include information on where school officials, parents, and others can write to obtain printed materials put out by NIDA, including ''Catching On,'' a drug-information comic book. This comic features a ''staroid ,'' an extraterrestrial being that looks like a cross between a TV and a computer, which tunes readers in to the dangers of drugs. Other items: ''It's Okay to Say No,'' a flyer for combating peer pressure to use drugs, and ''For Kids Only'' and ''Quiz Whizz,'' pamphlets for children. There are fliers aimed at parents as well.

In the ''New Teen Titans'' package and the NIDA material, the emphasis is on informing young people of the dangers of drugs and combating peer pressure to use them.

In the Weekly Reader survey, 25 percent of the fourth graders responding said children their own age encourage each other to try marijuana, and 33 percent said there is peer pressure to try beer, wine, and liquor.

The survey indicates that the figures rise with each elementary-school grade level. In fifth grade, 33 percent reported peer pressure to use marijuana, and 40 percent to use alcohol. By eighth grade, the pressure to use marijuana is up to 57 percent, according to the survey, and pressure to drink is up to 67 percent.

Weekly Reader editor Borton speaks of the impact of peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol on children surveyed. He says the survey revealed that ''for young kids, the primary reasons (they start) are to feel older and to fit in with other kids. . . . I had not expected to see so much evidence of the degree of pressure to use drugs and alcohol among kids this young.'' At present, he notes, most school programs designed to inform students about the danger of drug use don't start till sixth or seventh grade.

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