THERE'S something wrong with this ad. And Melida Hayes wants her class of fifth-graders to figure out what it is. The icy-blue magazine advertisement shows a well-worn study, with volumes labeled ``Naughty'' and ``Nice'' resting on a desk. Through the window, there is a glimpse of reindeer soaring above the moonlit snow. It doesn't take much to figure out this is supposed to be Santa Claus's study. But there's one thing more - a gold bottle of a popular brand of whiskey in the middle of the page.
The slight, blonde girl who brought the ad to class volunteers her thoughts on what message the advertiser is trying to put across: ``The ad is saying that Santa Claus drinks whiskey. And because Santa Claus would never do anything that would hurt you, it's OK to drink whiskey.''
``What isn't the ad telling you?'' asks Ms. Hayes.
``That alcohol can kill you,'' replies the girl, ``and that you can become addicted to it.''
Welcome to Project SMART. Developed by the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research at the University of Southern California, this program is aimed at helping children learn not just to say no to drugs and alcohol, but how to say no.
Although Project SMART incorporates information about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, it goes beyond the traditional health education curriculum on drugs. It helps children understand that the majority of people do not use drugs (statistics show that children tend to overestimate drug usage wildly). But it also teaches students how to identify a variety of social pressures that could encourage them to dabble with drugs and alcohol - from media advertising to peer pressure. Teachers also help pupils learn ways to resist those pressures with techniques that health educators call ``social resistance skills.''
``Most kids don't want to say yes to this kind of a situation,'' says Dr. William Hansen, who helped develop Project SMART and is also administrative director of the institute, which relies primarily on federal funds. ``But they value social acceptance more than they value themselves sometimes. ... What they need are skills to function, skills to make their way through society.
``What we work on a lot is developing kids' self-efficacy to say no,'' says Dr. Hansen, explaining that ``self-efficacy'' describes an individual's belief in himself that he has the skills to perform a certain act.
Through classroom discussions and role-playing exercises, SMART teachers help children become familiar with techniques as basic as ``the broken record'' (saying no repeatedly to a person's continued offers of drugs or alcohol) and as thoughtful as ``counterpressure'' (responding to pressure with pressure, as in telling a friend who offers drugs, ``I thought you were my friend. If you really were my friend, you wouldn't act this way around me.'')
Pinning down the effectiveness of the program is tricky. The institute hasn't had enough funds to post-test all the 50,000 to 60,000 children who've gone through Project SMART, which is designed for use in fifth- through eighth-grade classes. In addition, given the variety of influences a child may be exposed to, it's hard to identify exactly what has helped shape the decision to use or not to use drugs.
Hansen does point, however, to an ongoing study of seventh graders who went through Project SMART in 1982. In comparing use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana between students who participated in SMART and those who didn't, institute researchers found that experimentation with these drugs was 40 percent lower among SMART students. ``Given the logic of the program and what data we've seen, it's the best we have to offer,'' Hansen says.
Teacher Melida Hayes, who is paid by the institute, has been visiting schools all around Los Angeles for the past two years, teaching Project SMART in nine-day and 12-day sessions with children from a variety of economic and ethnic backgrounds. She says the most important thing she tries to accomplish is to help children think for themselves, not just parrot information.
``I want them to think about what they're doing,'' she explains. ``I want them to understand that this kind of situation could happen to them ... and that they have the resources to say no, and it's okay to say no.''
During this particular classroom session - at Sellers School, tucked away in a small upper-middle-class community some 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles - there's a lot of giggling and horsing around during role plays in the park, at school, and at the mall. Still, something seems to be getting through as these children practice ways of saying no to drugs.
``It's a good program for kids to take,'' says fifth-grader David. ``I've learned a lot of new things, like I never thought about walking away, or ignoring the person. I never thought of counterpressure.''
Because drug prevention research and education is still a relatively new field - some 15 years old - prevention programs have tended to be overlooked. But communities across the country are starting to wake up to the need to help their youth. And with $162 million in federal funds authorized, although not appropriated, for drug education programs in local school districts, prevention programs are likely to get more attention.
Already, Project SMART has moved well beyond the Los Angeles area. It has been incorporated into a communitywide drug-education program in Kansas City called Project STAR. And it's been adopted by the State of Maryland. In fact, according to Hansen, the institute will make the program available free of charge to anyone who wants it. Health educators, however, warn that prevention programs are not the only answer to drug abuse; communities need to get involved at all levels.
Lois Green, assistant principal at Sellers School, says that Project SMART represents Glendora, Calif.'s, first efforts to tackle drug abuse head-on. The community has just established Glendorans for Drug-Free Youth - an organization of parents, educators, community leaders, businessmen, church leaders, and civic groups.
``It used to be we were in a denial kind of mode, `This can't be happening here,''' she explains. ``We didn't want to talk about it in the schools because we didn't want to be suggestive to students. But we know that's not working, so it's time to take action, and see what other communities are doing.
Like other drug-abuse experts across the country, Hansen warns against expecting overnight results in the nation's war on drugs. These experts say that such expectations can lead to disappointment and discouragement, and giving up, if they are not tempered by the understanding that there are no quick fixes for drug abuse.
``Part of the problem of making progress is that we won't know when progress is really being made,'' cautions Hansen, referring specifically to prevention programs.
``We'll say progress is being made when we have XYZ programs in schools, when such and such a proportion of the federal government's annual budget is being devoted to it.
``That's one way to measure progress,'' he continues, ``but ultimately it doesn't tap what really the progress has to be. And that's changing lives.''
Fourth in an occasional series. Others ran Dec. 4, 10, and 16.