Fifteen second-graders in Kathy Headstrom’s class at Riverside Elementary School listened intently as they were introduced Wednesday to a cast of puppets.
There’s Myth Mary, Donovan Dignity, Rhonda Rabbit and Recovering Reggie.
Reggie is a recovering alcohol- and drug-addicted dog. Myth Mary is a gossipy squirrel with a lot of misconceptions about chemical dependency.
Rhonda Rabbit’s alcoholic mother has a boyfriend who fondles her.
These unconventional puppets are part of a Washington State University program that aims to inform children in a “non-threatening” way about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, peer pressure and low self-esteem.
But some of the district’s parents aren’t impressed.
“It’s a weird little puppet show,” said Renee Kent, who won’t let her daughter participate. “The whole thing is sick.”
District employees and people who work on the puppet show say it’s beneficial to students.
“The main idea is to help them develop (refusal) skills in these areas,” Headstrom said. “Studies are showing that kids are experimenting with drugs and alcohol as young as fifth and sixth grade.
“What do you do then? Wait until they’ve already been exposed to get them to develop refusal skills?”
For the next two months, second-graders at the school will get a weekly visit from BABES - Beginning Alcohol and Addictions Basic Education Studies. The program is put on by WSU’s Cooperative 4-H Extension Service.
Riverside has been using the program at the elementary level for eight years. Deer Park and Loon Lake districts also use the program at their elementary schools.
Jane Higuera, a BABES volunteer, thinks the second-graders, most of whom are 7 years old, can grasp the material.
“The point is to get them learning how to ask for help,” Higuera said, adding that the use of puppets has proved to be a valuable teaching tool for young kids. She cites Sesame Street’s Muppets as an example.
After the 15-minute program, the children talk about it with teachers and volunteers.
But Kent believes the solutions in the program are trivialized. She points to a conversation in the final lesson.
Rhonda Rabbit is told by Donovan Dignity: “Getting help is really not hard at all. It’s as easy as one-two-three.” She is then told to ask for help.
Another parent, Rhonda Reiner, doesn’t think second-graders are ready to tackle such weighty issues. She pulled her son from the program last year.
Reiner said her son became confused about the difference between illegal and prescription drugs.
“I think it’s inappropriate,” she said. “They cannot form the correct questions to ask.”
Riverside Elementary Principal Mike Jordan said the school has had success with the program. Jordan said “only a few” parents keep their children from participating.
“This handles these kinds of issues in an environment that is non-threatening to the students,” he said. “But in the end, every parent needs to make up his or her own mind about what they believe their child should be exposed to.”
Kent reviewed the program’s script before pulling her son. She did not like the negative portrayals of adults and the absence of adult role models.
She also doesn’t think the letter sent home by the district fully informs parents about the program.
Jordan said the school has always welcomed parents to the school to see the program for themselves. Children removed from the class by their parents are not penalized academically.
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