As parents of fourth- and fifth-graders gathered in the Worthington Elementary School cafeteria, Beth Williams asked, "How many folks here make sure children wear a helmet when riding a bike?"
All hands went up. Williams followed with more queries about routine safety precautions and received similar responses.
"What if I told you, as our kids get older one in 10 will be exposed to alcohol and drugs?"
Not as many hands were raised, and everyone listened intently as she told them about alarming statistics about drug and alcohol use among Howard County school- children. When she told them the average age of first use is age 12, "Wow!" or "Phew" were heard.
Scenes like this one Thursday at the Ellicott City school are being played out at back-to-school nights at 65 county elementary, middle and high schools this month. The speeches are slightly varied for each school level, but the message is the same: If parents want to keep their children safe, effective parental practices must be a top priority.
One of nearly 40 volunteer speakers, Williams, a parent and addictions counselor, works with "Not My Kid" Community Support for Parents, a private, nonprofit partnership concerned about juvenile crime, alcohol and drug use, and other risk-taking behaviors.
"It's a wonderful indication of real collaborative effort," said Howard State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, referring to citizens and public agencies involved.
McLendon and Board of Education member Stephen C. Bounds co-chair "Not My Kid" and receive support, planning and direction from the school system, Health Department, Office of Substance Abuse, Department of Juvenile Justice and Police Department.
McLendon, a speaker at several of the events, called back-to-school nights "our biggest initiative for the whole year. We try to get out where parents are."
"Not My Kid" presenters had three objectives for their three- to five-minute talks, and spent the rest of the evening answering questions and distributing information.
First, they shared statistics to combat parental denial, which is viewed as a major obstacle in Howard. Neon-colored fliers were on seats and listed results of the 1998 Maryland Adolescent Survey. The fliers also contained advice for parents and phone numbers if a problem is suspected.
Second, they told parents that they are the primary influences on children's decision-making and shared techniques that have been shown to reduce risk-taking behaviors. Spending time together at meals or outings, listening to problems and setting firm boundaries have been shown to deter substance abuse, they said.
Kids who can talk parents out of punishment or change their answers from "no" to "yes" are up to twice as likely to use drugs and alcohol. But substance abuse was not determined by demographics. "The issue that jumped out at us was parenting practices," said Bounds, referring to the adolescent survey.
Third, they provided protection strategies for parents. Bounds offered an example called the hug test, in which parents greet a child with a hug, take a deep breath to detect an odor of alcohol or cigarettes and look deep into his or her eyes for signs of impairment.
Ralph Massella, a parent speaker, puts a personal face on the statistics. He became involved seven years ago when his son Damien battled addiction that began as an alcohol problem about age 13. Damien was in rehabilitation and was clean, but he suffered a relapse and died of a heroin overdose two years ago. "He lost his battle with the problem," Massella said.
He and others involved with "Not My Kid" are concerned about the perception in Howard County that drugs and alcohol are someone else's problem.
The adolescent survey showed Howard children are better educated about substance abuse dangers, but their behavior doesn't reflect that knowledge. "They know the dangers, but that wasn't stopping them," Bounds said.
That is why "Not My Kid" focuses on parents because "it is all of our kids," Massella said. He wants to reach people untouched by addiction before they have the dose of reality he experienced. "I understand the community's fear and apprehension," he said.
All school levels are important, but Massella said elementary school is key because the chance to connect is greater at that age - before peer pressure increases in middle school and high school. To battle addiction and raise awareness, he sponsors Damien's Run For Recovery and created a Web site: www.massella.com.
Linda Norris, parent of a fifth-grader, said the message is being received at Worthington. "The school can't do it all," she said. "It takes parents and school staff working together to educate our kids."
"We are always pleased to have a 'Not My Kid' speaker," said Roger Plunkett, principal at Wilde Lake High School. "They serve as a reminder to all of us of an issue we cannot afford to be blind to."