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In Fairfax, Parents Get an Anti-Drug Lesson

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 5, 1996; Page A01

The first thing parents saw when they arrived at Fairfax High School's back-to-school night this week was a table covered with anti-drug brochures. "Marijuana: Facts Parents Need to Know," said one of the pamphlets.

A video being shown continuously on a nearby television monitor featured testimonials from children who had used drugs and parents who hadn't noticed.

Never before in Fairfax County has drug prevention been such a prominent theme of back-to-school night, an annual ritual that usually consists of parents meeting teachers and visiting classrooms. But school officials, alarmed that the number of drug-related expulsion hearings in Fairfax schools has more than tripled in the last two years, decided to use the fall event to notify parents that the system needs their help.

Every elementary, middle and high school in the county is displaying the brochures and the video, which warn parents about the signs of teenage drug use and urge them to talk to their children about the issue throughout the year.

"They're very busy. They're afraid to acknowledge this is going on," School Board Vice Chairman Mark H. Emery (At Large) said of Fairfax parents. "We all tend to give children too much freedom once they leave elementary schools. It can't go on that way. Parents need to continue to monitor their children's activities and work with other parents to stop the alcohol and drug use. Schools cannot do it alone."

Fairfax's initiative is one of the largest of its kind in the country, according to officials at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which donated nearly 100,000 copies of "Facts Parents Need to Know" for back-to-school nights.

"By dedicating so much activity to this effort, they are providing a model to what a school system can do," said Alan I. Leshner, the institute's director. "Twenty years of research has shown us that parental involvement in the life of the child is one of the most powerful protective factors."

But parents' interest in the anti-drug lessons has varied widely. Tuesday night at Fairfax High, some parents were glued to the 10-minute video produced by the school system, but most either didn't stop or walked away after watching only part of it. And at the end of the night, tall piles of brochures remained on the table.

Administrators said they intend to send the material home with students in coming weeks. But several senior girls who were selling Fairfax High sweat shirts said they doubted that many parents would read the brochures even then. That's because parents "are in denial," they said.

"They don't think it's their son or daughter," said Kelly Lender, 17. "They have good sons and daughters, who get good grades. But on the weekends, they don't do good things."

Last school year, Fairfax County school officials recommended that 102 students be expelled for drug-related offenses, compared with 32 students two years earlier. Most of the offenses involved marijuana. Drug use is up sharply among younger students. The number of middle school students who faced expulsion for marijuana distribution increased from four in 1993-94 to 35 in 1995-96.

Teenage drug use nationwide has doubled since 1992, according to a recent federal survey, a trend that Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole has seized on to argue that President Clinton is losing the war on drugs.

Fairfax is not the only Washington area system trying to get parents more involved in drug education. Montgomery County school officials are sending home videotapes and newspaper articles about marijuana and requiring parents to sign forms saying they have gone over the material with their children. Alexandria officials have produced a video that will be distributed to parents this fall through bookstores, libraries and PTAs.

"The schools are really in the business of trying to package the research and getting it to the parents," said Rita Rambaugh, coordinator of the Safe and Drug Free Schools program in Montgomery. "It's a preventable problem, and we really believe that we can accomplish more together with the parents."

At Fairfax High, Vicki Woods was one of the parents who intently watched the anti-drug video, called "Not My Child." Woods, who has an 18-year-old daughter at the school, said she's worried about the popularity of marijuana among Fairfax teenagers and about parents' lack of awareness.

"Parents do need to do more. I hope it'll open their eyes," she said of the school system's presentation.

Berni Petek, the mother of a 15-year-old boy at Fairfax's Robinson High School, praised officials at that school for asking parents to sit in the cafeteria to watch the video instead of displaying it on a hallway monitor. "You have to take advantage of the moment you have them," Petek said.

Some Fairfax parents said part of the problem is that parents who once used drugs may be reluctant to chastise their children for doing the same thing.

"It's kind of scary," said Peter Eikenberry, a Fairfax High parent who said he has never used drugs. "Children are not stupid. Children learn by what they see their parents doing and saying. They can tell how you really feel about things."

Drug specialists say parents who have smoked marijuana should tell their children that the drug is much more powerful now and the health risk far greater.

Eric and Sarah Sheppard, whose 15-year-old daughter, Deanna, attends Fairfax High, applauded the school system's effort. But they said the schools face a daunting challenge in trying to spark conversations about drugs between parents and children.

"What happens is, we don't want our children to do drugs. So if we don't talk about it, and don't hear them talk about it, then we tend to believe it's not a problem," Sarah Sheppard said.

Staff writer Jon Jeter contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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