New companion to 3 R's: class on drug abuse

If Johnny is old enough to learn how to read and write, then he is old enough to learn about alcohol and drug abuse. So say a growing number of educators and state lawmakers who are pressing for legislation to make alcohol and drug education courses mandatory in public schools, in some cases starting as early as kindergarten.

''What we're talking about is preventing drug and alcohol abuse, rather than waiting for the problem to arise and then treating it. That means getting to the kids early - and the earlier the better,'' says John Murphy, chairman of the General Committee of Vermont's Legislature and sponsor of a drug education bill there.

Several states are considering or have passed laws that require drug-and-alcohol-abuse education programs in public schools. Minnesota has had such a law since 1980; similar legislation is now before the Pennsylvania Legislature; Wisconsin is in the process of upgrading its overall program from voluntary to mandatory status; and Vermont passed a drug-and-alcohol-abuse education bill this year. North Carolina has had such a law on the books for several years.

Implementation of these laws varies widely by school district. An example of a program designed on the local level is the one in place in Minnesota's Rosemont school district. There, high school seniors apply for a course in which they are trained to teach sixth-graders about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.

For 40 minutes once a week, the sixth graders and their high school student teacher get together and discuss practical information about drugs and alcohol; personal skills, such as dealing with peer pressure and saying no to friends offering drugs; self-awareness - generating self-confidence in students so they can make their own decisions; and social awareness - understanding the effects of advertising for alcohol or drugs.

High school seniors are thought to be more effective than adult teachers because they are seen as both peers and role models.

''You put a high school football player up in front of these kids - someone who they idolize - and believe me, they listen to what he has to say about avoiding drugs in social situations,'' says Ron Brand, a chemical-abuse prevention coordinator for Minnesota's public schools.

States are rallying to the cause of alcohol and drug abuse education for a variety of reasons. In Vermont, pressure was brought to bear on the state Legislature to do something about the alarming rise in the number of alcohol- and drug-related traffic accidents. The drug and alcohol education programs in Vermont schools are seen as only one facet of a larger state education program aimed at adults and children alike.

Opposition to mandatory drug and alcohol education courses is, for the most part, muted. ''It's like being against motherhood and apple pie,'' says Mike Davis, executive director of the Wisconsin Association on Alcohol and other Drug Abuse.

But some administrators and teachers don't like what they perceive to be a trend by lawmakers to use schools as a dumping ground for social programs. They are concerned that more and more required classes are having a negative effect on the back-to-basics movement. ''There's no question this type of program further crowds an already crowded curriculum and spreads teachers thin,'' says Robert Grogan, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

Other administrators with an eye on their checkbooks see the cost of such programs as the primary concern. They say they would welcome drug and alcohol education programs if the budget pie were larger, but when it comes to choosing between a new computer system for the school and a drug program of unproven effectiveness, they would rather see such counseling taking place at home.

In Minnesota, where drug and alcohol education programs have been required since 1980, fears about cost have proved unfounded. The total cost of the program works out to $1 per student per year for a program winning approval from educators in many states.

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