Dressed in red shirts and carrying red balloons, students at Robinson Elementary School gathered on the playground Monday afternoon to say no to drugs.
“One, two, three. Look at me. I’m drug free,” students screamed as they released red balloons into the air in recognition of Red Ribbon Week, a nationwide initiative aimed at teaching children the dangers of drug and alcohol use.
The celebratory balloon launch at Robinson kicked off a variety of events throughout the district designed to educate students and their parents in the war against drugs. Events are planned through the end of the month.
The Red Ribbon Campaign was founded in 1985 as a response to the drug traffickers in Mexico City murdering Enrique (Kiki) Camarena, a Drug Enforcement Administration Agent.
Since then it has become a national movement to combat drug use across the country.
“Red Ribbon Week is quite a tradition around here,” said Dawson County School Superintendent Nicky Gilleland. “It’s a way for the counselors and the school resource officers to emphasize the importance of making positive choices. It’s never too early to start educating these kids and getting that message across.”
Dawson County was one of the first counties in the state to teach a drug resistance program to every fifth grader and is now one of five systems in the state piloting a similar drug resistance program at the middle school level.
“This age is when they are going to have to worry about drugs in the middle school,” said Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle. “Middle school is an age where the kids are kind of out there lingering. They’re in the middle and are going to follow whoever has the strongest lead.”
Riverview Middle School Counselor Amanda Johnson agrees that peer pressure is a driving force behind middle school students making choices concerning drugs and alcohol.
“We’re starting to see the middle school students asking friends to come over, have boy and girl parties. And at least in the eighth grade parties, drugs and alcohol may be available,” said Johnson. “Kids feel the pressure to act cool or to be part of the crowd.”
While drug resistance is taught to all fifth and seventh graders in the school system, many children, even younger, have already been exposed to alcohol abuse or illegal drug use, said Leigh Orr, a counselor at Black’s Mill Elementary School.
“Each school has several models that teach components of the drug prevention education,” Orr said. “Kids are well aware that illegal drugs are dangerous and should be avoided. Hopefully, if we can educate the kids when they are young, then maybe we won’t have the pervasive drug use among our teenagers.”
A rash of recent incidents involving north Georgia teenagers and illegal substances spotlights the issue. Authorities are still awaiting the toxicology report in the death of Dawson County High School graduate Cassondra “Cassie” Ellen Key, who was found dead at a friends home in Forsyth County on Oct. 4.
Wayne Chelf, principal at Dawson County High School, said Key’s death hit home and has really touched his students. “They see the consequences in their actions, and that’s how we try to focus at this level,” he said.
Authorities and school officials say the drug resistance programs offered through the school system are a step in the right direction, but all agree the education must begin at home.
“We can’t just talk about this the last week of October for Red Ribbon Week. We’ve got to dig our heels in and do it all year round,” Gilleland said.
E-mail Michele Hester at firstname.lastname@example.org.