Frank Parks sensed something wrong with Spingarn High when he walked the halls of the Northeast school in 1984. The odor of marijuana was in stairwells and bathrooms. Most alarming to Parks, Spingarn's athletic director, was that the smell was even in the school's locker rooms.
"My feeling is that at the high school level, student athletes are the most influential role models," Parks said. "A kid that plays sports has an impact on up to 15 other students. I felt we had a serious problem and wanted to do something about it."
Parks said he was completely ignorant of drugs and their long-term effects, so he spent many weeks studying Drug Enforcement Agency material. Then he called student leaders into his office and asked them three questions: Was there a drug problem at Spingarn? Were there drug dealers in the school? And, are you using any drugs?
"To the first two questions they told me, 'yes.' I didn't expect an answer to the third question and didn't get one. But what I sense from these meetings is that the kids want to get drugs out of the school," Parks said. That's when he put SAND into effect.
SAND (Sports Activities Not Drugs) is a program that attempts to educate students about the dangers of drugs and to promote positive school events -- athletic programs, glee club, the band, acting and other school activities.
"Over 50 percent of the kids here are now in some sort of school activity," Parks said. "For those kids whose income is needed to support their family, we arrange after-school jobs. What you see time and time again is that it's tough for kids to turn an opportunity down. They'll always take an activity or job offer over drugs."
Another key component of SAND is a group of peer counselors. SAND counselors take classes about drugs and drug prevention from Parks. SAND peer counselors wear brightly colored T-shirts so that students in need of advice can easily notice them. Students can often be found in Spingarn's rap room talking about everything from peer pressure to finding part-time jobs.
"I have had some very strong counselors," Parks said. "One particular girl must have talked 25 kids out of taking drugs. She's taught twice that many about the dangers of drugs."
Seniors Eric Abraham and Tyrone Hickson are among Spingarn's counselors.
"We make three social contracts with Mr. Parks," said Abraham, a member of Spingarn's cross-country, basketball and track teams. "There's a social, a team and an academic contract," he explained. Each contract involves making commitments to various aspects of a student's life.
"The academic contract is a pledge that you won't take drugs and that you'll maintain at least a 2.5 average. It makes you really work harder," Abraham said. The 18-year-old said he may work a year before going to college.
"I used to be a quiet kid," Abraham said, "but Mr. Parks' programs have opened me up. I talk a lot more and I even enjoy meeting kids from other schools."
"I try to help students out when they're feeling confused about drugs or any other type of problem," Hickson said. "I tell them that if they stick to school and give 110 percent effort, they can get through bad periods. You don't have to escape by using drugs.
"I try to be a positive influence," continued Hickson, an academic All-America and standout in basketball and football. "SAND is a good program," he said. "I think it shows how successful the program is here by the way it spread to other schools." Hickson, who said he wants to major in business management in college, is being recruited by dozens of colleges to play basketball and football.
Spingarn Principal Ann N. Thomas attested to the effectiveness of the program. "SAND is a remarkable program. The school would be lost without it. There should be such a program in every school in the nation," she said.
SAND has had so much success at Spingarn that seven area schools have adopted similar programs. About 140 student counselors in area schools now offer SAND's anti-drug, pro-activity advice. Counselors from participating schools frequently visit each other's campuses. They also attend retreats, parties and field trips.
Thomas also has praise for Parks. "A program like SAND can't simply be placed into a school, given a director and then be expected to work well. Such a program needs someone of Mr. Parks' makeup and genuine concern for people; leadership is one of the primary concerns of SAND."
Parks said Spingarn is now free of drugs. "Sure, a handful of kids use drugs but there isn't smoke coming from the bathrooms anymore. There aren't any dealers in school. Ask 85 to 90 percent of the kids and they say they don't want to be associated with drugs. Drugs give them a bad name. I think we're being successful because of a different approach. We just don't go after the pusher, but the user, too."