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    Pupils sign pledge to reject drugs

    Students at Cross Bayou Elementary celebrate Red Ribbon Week, inspired in part by a federal officer who was a casualty in the war on drugs.

    By DONNA WINCHESTER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    PINELLAS PARK -- Pam Cheney had some questions for her fourth-graders onthe first day of Red Ribbon Week last week at Cross Bayou Elementary School.

    "Why are we signing this red ribbon pledge?"

    A dozen hands shot into the air.

    "Because we're saying no to drugs."

    "Why are we saying no to drugs?" Cheney asked.

    "Because drugs are bad for you."

    Cheney asked for specifics -- and got them.

    "You shouldn't do drugs because you can get in big trouble."

    "When you do drugs, you can't concentrate because your brains are fried out."

    "Drugs are bad because they can keep your heart from pumping and you can die."

    A red construction-paper bow was passed from desk to desk as the discussion continued. Each child carefully signed his or her name to the bow, making a commitment not to smoke or take illegal drugs.

    It was a ritual repeated in every classroom at Cross Bayou, 6886 102nd Ave. N, and the first in a weeklong series of activities that included guest appearances from Max Gessner, chairman of the Pinellas County School Board; Michael Hargrave, a representative from Safe and Drug Free Schools; and James Bupp, a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer.

    The children watched a variety of instructional videos on the hazards of drug use, including Monica and the Powerful Drug, Dusty the Dragon and The Boy Who Was Swallowed by the Drug Monster. They designed posters for the cafeteria windows and created decorations for their classroom doors.

    The highlight of Red Ribbon Week was the Say No to Drugs March on Friday. More than 700 children, led by the Pinellas Park Police Department and flanked by the Pinellas Park High School band and cheerleaders,paraded with parents, faculty, cafeteria and custodial workers from the school to Southland Roller Palace and back.

    Assistant principal Robert Poth said the activities send a clear signal to students that being drug-free is something they need to think about. He believes that participation in Red Ribbon Week teaches the children refusal skills that will come in handy when -- not if -- they are approached about smoking cigarettes or using illegal drugs.

    "Kids have a lot of opportunity to be exposed to that type of world," Poth said. "The key is to be able to get away from it."

    Guidance counselor Judy Jones, the motivating force behind Cross Bayou's Red Ribbon Week for five years, agrees. She said the Red Ribbon program is about prevention rather than intervention.

    "We want the children to learn to say no, thank you," she said. "We want them to develop an understanding of what drugs and alcohol can do to them. If someone were to approach them, we want them to be able to say no, I'm too smart for that."

    Jones said that a lot of emphasis during Red Ribbon Week is placed on cigarette smoking.

    "The kids may not have been exposed to anyone who does drugs yet, but they're exposed to family members who smoke," she said. "That's closest to home for them. When they come up against illegal drugs, they can use the same refusal skills."

    The kids seem to be getting the message.

    Ten-year-old Nicole Hughes remembers what she learned last year: You don't have to smoke cigarettes or do drugs to be cool.

    "Some people think they're cool, but I just think it's plain disgusting," she said.

    No one has tried to talk her into smoking cigarettes or taking drugs but if anyone does, she said, she would definitely say no.

    Jo Lisa Jackson, also 10, remembers the videos, especially The Boy Who Was Swallowed by the Drug Monster.

    "When I saw that movie," she said, "I just had a shiver in my body."

    She still recalls the words and music from another video: "Be smart, don't start, say no, gotta go."

    Ten-year-old Sara Bouknecht remembers signing the red-ribbon pledge last year.

    "When I signed that red ribbon, it made me feel good about myself because I knew I wouldn't do drugs," she said.

    Sara's mother, Marti Bouknecht, applauds the Red Ribbon program at Cross Bayou. She said she has talked to Sara and her other daughter, 8-year-old Lynne, about drugs and alcohol.

    "The Red Ribbon activities reinforce what the children hear at home," she said. "They know it's not just Mom saying it when they hear it from their teachers."

    She said the activities give the children food for thought and open communication lines for further discussion at home.

    Although the campaign points out the hazards of drugs, it does not rely on scare tactics. The children are given concrete, common-sense reasons for staying away from harmful substances.

    Ten-year-old Terri Green will say no to drugs because she has big plans for her future. She wants to be an archaeologist and doesn't want to miss out on any digs. Timothy Schleede, 9, wants to be a detective when he grows up. He will stay away from drugs and alcohol because he knows they could prevent him from getting his chance.

    According to Linda Jones, coordinator for Safe and Drug Free Schools in Pinellas County, the Red Ribbon campaign began as a grass-roots tribute to Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, a 37-year-old U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officer. Camarena was kidnapped while investigating a major drug cartel in Mexico in 1985. After his body was found in a shallow grave, Camarena's family and friends in Calexico, Calif., began wearing red satin ribbons to honor the slain officer and as a symbol of solidarity against illegal drug trafficking.

    Jones said the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth coordinated the first Red Ribbon Week in 1988. After becoming a federally mandated program, Red Ribbon Week was adopted by the Pinellas County School Board in 1990.

    It has been celebrated to different degrees in the schools ever since. She said Cross Bayou's celebration is especially impressive.

    Judy Jones planned it that way. She said that she wanted the week's activities, especially the parade, to have enough impact to reach even the 3- and 4-year-olds at Cross Bayou.

    "They don't have all the language skills, but I think kids develop memory and they remember events even if they're not able to immediately understand," she said. "They might not understand all the language, but they'll certainly get the message."

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