SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
How do you convince children not to do drugs?
Land a helicopter in their elementary school.
On Wednesday morning, about 400 children sat student-style in Needham Elementary School’s courtyard as Chief Warrant Officer Ron Trani of the Colorado Army National Guard, accompanied by Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent John Preeg, landed a Lakota LUH-72 helicopter in their football field.
Judging by the students’ manic applause, not even Justin Bieber could have proved as awesome a sight.
The National Guard repeated this helicopter stunt at Park Elementary and Animas Valley Elementary later Wednesday as part of its Red Ribbon campaign, an annual anti-drug effort that began after DEA Special Officer Enrique S. Camerena was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered in 1985 as he was on the cusp of unraveling a billion-dollar drug pipeline.
Maj. Holger Peters with the National Guard said that as part of the Red Ribbon campaign, the Colorado Army National Guard visits 70 to 80 schools a year.
Peters admitted that the helicopter had nothing to do with the campaign’s anti-drug message.
“It’s just the platform through which we get the DEA agent from site to site – but the helicopter comes with a high cool factor – it just drives the kids nuts,” he said.
The helicopter’s effect on Needham’s students certainly was narcotic. As classes shuffled out and seated themselves in the courtyard, Trani teased his growing audience by flying the helicopter around the back of the school, low enough that its rotor’s whirring echoed off the concrete, but just out of sight.
A young boy pointed at a woman in uniform, who was setting up a radio. “Look! A soldier woman!” he exclaimed.
Then, from the radio, came Trani’s voice: “It would help me find the school if you could make a lot of noise.”
This elicited a deafening chorus of whoops and “we’re right here” as the children desperately waved at the sky.
By the time Preeg addressed the crowd, he had their undivided attention.
“Helicopter pilots, policemen, teachers, principals, soldiers – all these people have good jobs, but it takes making the right choices. The biggest choice is to not take drugs,” he said.
Trani spoke next, opening with, “Do you think I could land the plane if I were on drugs?”
“No!” came the children’s emphatic reply.
“What do you do if someone offers you drugs?” bellowed Trani.
They chanted in rapturous unison, “Just say no!”
One boy, who apparently missed the cue, instead yelled, “throw them in the trash!” causing Trani to chuckle.
Kathy Morris, safety coordinator for Durango School District 9-R, said the Red Ribbon Campaign is a “phenomenal program.”
“Elementary kids may not be using drugs – hopefully – but they may be bystanders to it, whether it’s older kids using or there’s substance abuse at home,” she said.
She said to believe substance abuse isn’t occurring here is naive.
“How many medical marijuana clinics do we have in this town? I don’t think that’s a perception – there are lots of them. Among kids, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, substance abuse is on the rise,” she said.
According to a 2011 Colorado Healthy Kids survey, 65.5 percent of Colorado high school students reported having at least one drink of alcohol in their lifetime. More than a third reported consuming alcohol in the last 30 days, and more than a fifth reported binge drinking in the last 30 days.
Almost 40 percent of students reported using marijuana with 22 percent using in the last 30 days. Twenty percent reported taking a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription.