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Antidrug TV show sparks new community activism

''Drugs are con artists,'' 17-year-old Trevor Peck tells a cherubic-faced group of about 50 youngsters - most of them between the ages of eight and 13. ''The pressure is on you because you're going to be faced with them (drugs). But you can say no.''

Trevor, a former drug abuser and now a member of the drug education group Straight Inc., speaks from hard experience.

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After he tells his story, several hands go up in the audience.

''Why are there so many drugs?'' asks one boy. ''What's the most dangerous drug you can take?'' asks another.

This meeting is not being held at a drug rehabilitation center. It's not part of a school drug-education program. Rather, it's a meeting organized by local parents being held in a community church in Norwell, Mass.

Educating Americans about drug and alcohol abuse is not uncommon but, thanks in part to a PBS television program, a new audience is getting the message about ''chemical dependency.''

This group of children and their parents got the message because the town's new ''parent task force'' worked to organize and spread the word about the meeting.

The Norwell parent task force has between 25 and 30 active members, but tens of thousands of parents have formed similar community task forces nationwide.

In what appears to be a broad wave of sustained community activism, between 8 ,000 and 8,500 parent task forces have formed since a two-part television program called ''The Chemical People'' aired on PBS stations last November, says Barbara Dillon of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

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On the nights of both programs, meetings were held at local schools and civic centers where discussions followed the television program. Roughly 11,000 such meetings were held nationwide, says Ricki Wertz of WQED Pittsburgh, which created the program.

After each program ended, viewers held so-called ''town meetings.'' At a typical meeting, parents, children, and a panel of experts grappled with such problems as how to eliminate teen hang-outs where drugs are sold. The panels often included policemen, drug counselors, parents, and young former drug dependents, says Ms. Wertz.

At one meeting in a St. Louis high school, one panel member - a mother - explained that her daughter was still hooked on hard drugs and had left home despite efforts to help her.

Since last November, parent task forces have coalesced and, in some cases, have begun to follow ideas presented by ''The Chemical People'' about how concerned parents can attack the problem by forming a community antidrug task force.

Norwell parents, who have held monthly meetings, invite local drug-counseling experts to tell them what they can do to fight the problem.

The outcome of their meetings was the task force's recent educational meeting on drug and alcohol abuse - specifically directed at fourth- through eighth-grade students.

High school students were invited to the meeting to prepare local children for the pressures they are likely to face from their peers. The youngsters were also encouraged not to be ''afraid to talk to your parents, because they're your best friends when it comes to saying no to drugs.''

At one point during the meeting, parents left the room so the kids could talk freely. Parents watched a film and discussed how to be alert for drug dependency at home.

Unlike other antidrug televison programs, ''The Chemical People'' seems to have scored a deeper and more sustained impact because it hit at the core of the chemical dependency problem: ''denial that the problem even exists,'' says Jean Hrebec, an active task force member in St. Louis.

Drug counseling professionals agree.

''It's almost as if the community here were given permission to admit there was a problem,'' says Ken McManus, a professional drug rehabilitation counselor in St. Louis.

''It has freed up the up-tight posture that most community professionals and parents held toward adolescent chemical abuse. The task force groups here seem to have a solid longevity.''

Regional task force coordinators in Missouri, Texas, Alaska, Massachusetts, and Washington say local task force activity has remained strong and, in some cases, has even increased in recent months.

Several task forces in St. Louis have combined efforts to begin fund raising and research to develop a youth halfway house called the Changing Place. It will involve a structured living style and house about 20 kids who are trying to quit drugs.

National coordinators consider St. Louis to be one of the areas most receptive to the TV program. At least 100 local task forces, spawned by about 120 town meetings, are currently operating in that city, Mrs. Hrebec says.

But the success of ''The Chemical People'' in St. Louis and other areas across the nation has as much to do with the task-force meetings as with months of groundwork laid by WQED Pittsburgh. The station set up national and regional networks of volunteers to publicize the program, says WQED's Ms. Wertz, outreach director for ''The Chemical People.''

''We wanted to bring them (parents and children) out to an event - to create a safe atmosphere for a lot of people who were scared to discuss the problem,'' Ms. Wertz says.

A pilot program that aired 21/2 years ago in Pittsburgh produced task forces that remained active. This led WQED officials to try to implement the task-force structure nationally through ''The Chemical People.''

The program even reached the shores of Alaska. In Unalakleet, a tiny fishing village of 803 on the southern shore of Norton Sound, nearly 200 residents showed up at the first town meeting to watch the program.

''It was just the thing people needed to open up their eyes,'' says Unalakleet Mayor Sue Eckels. ''We're trying not to duplicate some of the (adult alcohol) programs we already have in place. We're going to have a volleyball program and a hunting expedition for the kids in the fall.''

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