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Young 'Drug Busters' help children stand tall against peer pressure


The two girls stand together, one pressuring the other to drink a beer, teasing her and asking if she is "chicken."

"No," the other girl replies, "but I know some people who don't drink either."

Her friend snaps back: "Yeah, but they're geeks, right? They're not popular, right?"

The exchange, which takes place in front of about 60 children in Stoneleigh Elementary School's gymnasium, is an act put on by a group of 12 youngsters known as the Drug Busters. Sponsored by the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, the Drug Busters' mission is to warn young students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

"It's an opportunity to tell other kids what they're going to deal with when they get older," said Cherilyn Peery, 11, a sixth-grader at General John Stricker Middle School and a member of the Police Athletic League.

The Drug Busters, who are either members of Students Against Drunk Driving or PAL participants, hope to reach 1,000 children this summer, their first year of touring the county's summer playgrounds. They also want the younger children to benefit from their own experiences and understand that it's OK to stand up for themselves and their beliefs. "By the time they reach our grades, it's too late," says Keya Hall, 17, a member of SADD and a senior at Overlea High School. "Going to a party is murder if you don't want to drink."

Statistics show that while drug abuse education has been somewhat successful among older children, the lack of education for younger children may explain the increase of some drug use among those students.

The 1990 Maryland Adolescent Survey Report, a statewide analysis of tobacco, alcohol and other drug use, says drug use has increased among middle schoolers, but decreased among high school students. The survey also said that more sixth-graders reported using inhalants, like glue, than tobacco. However, between sixth and eighth grades, cigarette smoking nearly quadrupled.

Because cigarettes, alcohol and LSD -- a drug of increasing popularity among Maryland students -- are usually the first drugs younger students encounter, the Drug Busters focus their mostly ad-libbed acts on those drugs.

At Stoneleigh, the Drug Busters used audience participation and encouraged students to advise a girl whose friends were pressuring her to drink a beer. When asked if the girl should turn down the beer, nearly all the children, who ranged in age from 5 to 11, raised their hands.

"Step on it!" one child shouted.

"Throw it away!" said another.

"Call the cops!" chimed in a third.

Audience members also were asked to recount times they've been pressured into doing something they didn't want to do and talk about how they were able to stand up for themselves.

Though all of the Drug Busters say they have never tried illegal drugs, most admit to having tried alcohol at least once. They said deciding to avoid drugs, and learning to deal with the contempt of friends and siblings, was key to their interest in the program.

"It's a good way to learn who your real friends are," said Jennifer Carley, 16, an Overlea junior and SADD member. "Real friends aren't going to pressure you into doing something you don't want."

Michael M. Gimbel, who directs the county Office of Substance Abuse, said the idea of using older teens to teach younger children stems from programs like SADD, which have greatly reduced the number of drunken-driving accidents among students in the last 10 years. "We know that kids are more likely to listen to their peers than they are to adults, who tend to preach," he said.

The Drug Busters agree.

"We're more like role models. It's totally different coming from someone younger than from an adult," Keya said. "We stress morality first. If that doesn't work, there's always the fact that it's against the law."

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