What's Nancy Reagan doing with a half-dozen characters who sound as if they're fugitives from a comic book? Names like The Changeling (Shape-Shifter Supreme), Cyborg (Half Man/Half Robot), Raven (Mysterious Empath), The Protector (Fighting Fury), Speedy (the Battling Bowman), Starfire (Alien Powerhouse) and Wonder Girl (the Amazing Amazon)?
What she's doing, as the White House announced yesterday, is taking her drug-abuse crusade to fourth-grade classrooms in 35,000 schools around the country. And what better way to do it than with that oft-scorned and sometimes violent chronicle of childhood fantasies, the comic book?
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't be a hero," Mrs. Reagan writes in "The New Teen Titans," a DC Comics Inc. publication underwritten by Keebler Co. and unveiled yesterday by the White House. "You can--and you are about to learn how. Picture yourself in battle. In fact, it is one of the most important battles our nation has ever fought."
Protector, Speedy, Starfire and the others were only part of package introduced as The President's Drug Awareness Campaign by the White House Office of Drug Abuse Policy, the Department of Education and a half-dozen other groups and companies.
The other part was what some at the news conference yesterday hailed as the first national survey of school-age children on what they think and know about drugs and alcohol. Conducted this winter by the classroom publication Weekly Reader, the survey represents a random sample of about 100,000 students, out of 500,000 responding in Grades 4 through 12. The results were analyzed and weighted to adjust for U.S. population distribution. In addition to other findings, it revealed that among fourth graders:
Some feel significant pressures to use drugs and alcohol (25 percent);
Many perceive movies/TV (36 percent) and family (34 percent) as principal sources of information on alcohol and drugs;
Most perceive a significant risk in using one or the other of the drugs (75 percent);
Some think kids start using marijuana to "feel older" (25 percent) or "fit in" (31 percent) with other kids; about the same percentages say they think kids use alcohol for the same reasons.
"The survey breaks new ground for us about attitudes on drug abuse," said Carlton Turner, the president's adviser on drug abuse policy, whose office worked with Weekly Reader in developing the survey. "We knew drug education was necessary, but we didn't know at what age."
Terry Borton, editor in chief of Weekly Reader, said his own conviction, after studying the survey, was that "we need to go below the fourth grade" to ascertain attitudes of even younger children.
"Drugs and drug peddling are big business in America, a $79 billion retail endeavor that exceeds the annual income of every U.S. company except Exxon," said Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. His office is involved in distributing the comic books, which went out yesterday to 35,000 schools.
The survey did not ask how many fourth-graders use drugs or alcohol because information was collected through classroom teachers. "We did not feel we could ask them to tell their teachers," said Borton.
Turner said that other information, however, shows that the average age of a first-time user is 13, "but there are a lot below and a lot above."
Turner's office came up with the idea for the comic book last winter, then approached several publishers, including DC Comics. Although DC Comics had already started a similar commercial project, according to Turner, it expressed a desire to participate. He said Keebler agreed to underwrite the project. There will be other comic books coming out in the fall, with other corporate backers, Turner said.
"It will be the first time we will ever have had a mechanism where we can follow the trends from the fourth grade up," Turner said.
He said statistics show that each comic book is reread six times by the child before it is passed along and ultimately read by six other children.
Charles L. Shemely, Keebler's senior vice president, said cost had not been a consideration for getting into the program. And Nancy Reagan said later through her press secretary, Sheila Tate, that she was glad to see "a cooperative effort" between Keebler and her husband's Drug Policy office.
Mrs. Reagan also liked the comic book ("another good tool, like 'Diff'rent Strokes,' " a TV show in which she appeared). The book includes a "Declaration" for young readers to sign and tell why they want to be a "titan" in the drug war. Accompanying the book, in material for teachers, is a "certificate of heroism" superimposed over a drawing of the White House, with a facsimile of Mrs. Reagan's autograph.
Jenette Kahn, president and publisher of DC Comics, said the comic book was aimed at non-drug users in the fourth grade because "it would be naive of us to think that with a teacher and a comic book we could get heavy users off drugs."
When comedian Mark Russell and Nancy Reagan sat next to each other at the head table Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner, what were they talking about?
Drugs, according to spokeswomen for both Russell and Mrs. Reagan. The first lady gave him a complete rundown on her anti-drug abuse efforts to date.