Cartoons can be destructive. Sarah Russo knew this, but there was something about the way John W. Hodge illustrated the point yesterday that jarred the mother of a kindergartener.
Hodge, a nationally known motivational speaker, had just aired excerpts from an episode of the animated series South Park, which follows the lives of four foul-mouthed third-graders in a small Colorado town. In the episode, the boys mock a school counselor's anti-drug lecture and get him fired. Later, the counselor, homeless and depressed, slips into drug use and casual sex.
"Ten-, 11-, 12-year-olds are watching this," Hodge said. "Some of you all are in shock, because you let your kids watch this. You walk by the television and don't even realize the content that they're seeing. But what just happened in that episode? They learned if life gets hard, take a hit [of a drug]. If you do drugs, you get the girl. You have to realize what the media is doing to your child. We can act like it's not there, but it'll come back to bite us."
The effect of media on children - and the lengths parents must go to protect their children from negative influences - was among nine topics explored at a parent involvement conference yesterday in Gambrills. Russo was among 280 parents who stuffed the auditorium at the Anne Arundel County school system's Carver Staff Development Center - the largest turnout in the 15-year history of the annual workshops, said Teresa Tudor, who directs the district's school and family partnerships office.
Russo doesn't let her daughter at Overlook Elementary watch South Park, but said the workshop helped her with ways to become more vigilant.
This year's parent conference particularly excited organizers because it was more ethnically diverse than in the past, drawing about a dozen Hispanic parents, who were aided by an interpreter. The conference also drew more fathers than before and attracted more parents from middle and high schools, where involvement usually wanes.
Event planners sought to draw parents of older children by including issues such as adolescent substance abuse, gang awareness and college preparation. The workshops, they said, would help parents see new ways to get involved in schools.
Middle and high schools could use "parents who can walk the hallways, parents who can be tutors or mentors, just so the students know there's an adult there they can go to," said Anita Owens, president of the county council of PTAs.