Along with 80 million other Americans, my school-aged kids will experience Red Ribbon Week at their public elementary school this week. Although the intention behind such a week is noble, the reality of it thrust in my children’s day-to-day life makes me question the program’s goals.
Red Ribbon Week has been held the last week in October since 1986, shortly after the kidnapping, torture and brutal murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena by drug traffickers. At first it was a grassroots campaign- people from Camarena’s hometown decided to wear red that week to honor the slain hero and to pledge to live clean lives, completely opposite from the lives the drug war fighters led who ended Camarena’s.
First Lady Nancy Reagan took notice and helped give the Red Ribbon Coalition a national platform. Its goal today is to raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, and encourage prevention, early intervention, and treatment services.
It is the largest, most visible prevention awareness campaign observed annually in the United States.
It all sounds noble and good. I remember how powerful some of the Red Ribbon assemblies were on campus when I was a high school teacher- I knew there were students who actively dealt with such issues in their day-to-day life. Yet I cringed when I walked on school campus last year with my precious then 5-year-old kindergartner that first Monday morning and she asked, “Mommy, why are there red flags all over the school?” and then, upon closer inspection, she read in her barely 3 and 4 letter word way, “Why do the flags say D-R-U-G…Drug?”
Later, wearing a wristband she was instructed to wear all week, she asked, “What does this bracelet say?” to which I stammered, “Proud to be Drug Free.” It was confusing for her. Was the glass of wine her Dad and I sometimes have at dinner a drug, she wanted to know. Her big brothers didn’t help when they told her the Tylenol we have in the medicine cabinet is a “drug” for pain.
All of the students at school, whether they’re 5 or 11, see the same words and phrases all around campus, multiple times a day. The same wristbands emblazoned with the word “drug” are supposed to be with them all week. I’d rather a book be their constant companion and leave the teaching of morals and values to parents.
By the way, I am not uncomfortable talking about sex or drugs with my children. I am here, waiting with open ears and open arms to discuss serious moral and health issues with them. But do 5-year-olds need the same language and images thrust upon them that 11-year-olds do?
Why is it that sex education is kept within the classroom walls of older students, but drug prevention is visible, trumpeted to all?
Yes, the kindergarten curriculum teachers use to instill the messages of Red Ribbon Week is relatively tame- they talk about themes like choices and being a good friend. Yet they spend a good portion of every day, all day, talking about it, and then poof! It’s all gone again until the next year. Seems like a waste to me.
This is not just a public school thing either- of the family and friends I asked whose kids go to private or parochial schools, the vast majority of them say their schools also celebrate Red Ribbon Week.
There are parents who will say, “But these kids may not have anyone else to talk with them about drugs and choices, etc.” Children need to have frank discussions with trusted adults before they or their friends may be in situations dealing with drugs and/or alcohol, but to have the schools begin the subject in the younger elementary years is intrusive not to mention a wasted week of academics.
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