Phoenix school principal Camerino Lopez figured he had the perfect forum in which to express his surprising views on the chief threats to America's youth.
As Arizona's only representative on the 26-member National Commission on Drug-Free Schools, Lopez was eager to get his new point of view out for public scrutiny. He wasn't alone in his thinking. A majority of the blue-ribbon panel--which included eight members of Congress and others from several walks of life--had reached the same conclusion after a yearlong debate.
Their finding? Alcohol and tobacco, not illegal drugs, are the most serious perils. That view put them directly at odds with drug czar William Bennett and President George Bush.
"I had never thought of alcohol and tobacco as being the No. 1 problems for our kids," says Lopez. "I was raised on booze and tobacco, and I indulge in both myself. I thought it was illegal drugs. But I was wrong."
Bennett and Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos had appointed the panel amid much fanfare in August 1989. Many had expected it to add ammunition to Bennett's well-publicized stance against illegal drugs as the poison infecting society. But it didn't.
And Bennett has tried to suppress the commission's findings and recommendations.
"Of course, we weren't saying there wasn't a drug problem," says Lopez, the principal for nine years at Garfield Elementary School on 13th Street south of McDowell. "I know there's a drug problem--I know that firsthand. Did anyone try to put political pressure on us not to conclude the way we did? The answer is yes. Booze and tobacco are major industries in this country. But Bennett told us, `If you come forward with this, it won't hold any water. You have to be realistic.' I don't know exactly what has happened here."
If any report has ever deserved to see the light of day, it's the one completed by the commission in September. It's rare among government-sanctioned documents--generally readable, timely, and with a mix of practical and pie in the sky. (Calling for "drug-free schools and colleges by the year 2000" fits into the pipe-dream category.)
"In general," the report concludes, "the use of such drugs as cocaine, marijuana and heroin has declined among high school and college youth, as well as in the general population, over the last decade . . . Fewer young people are using drugs than at any time since 1979. The use of alcohol and tobacco among youth, however, has seen very little decline."
Among its recommendations, the commission calls for states to collect fines from drug felons for education and treatment, not just for law-enforcement purposes. It also asks states to introduce multimedia campaigns against drinking and smoking by kids, including ordering equal-time provisions to counter ads targeting youth.
"The commission believes that the nation's drug problems will not be eliminated until the gateway drugs--alcohol and tobacco--are dealt with more effectively," the report says. "If messages about drug use are to be credible and consistent, society must address all drugs.
"To discuss only concerns about controlled drugs would send a message that alcohol and tobacco do not present significant problems, or that society is willing to overlook these problems."
This was dramatic information, especially from a commission put together largely by Bill Bennett. Bennett's blitzkrieg since his January 1989 appointment by President Bush had been aimed at convincing everyone that illegal drugs are America's No. 1 enemy. Alcohol and tobacco have not been villains of Bennett's drug war.
But the panel of teachers, politicians, research scientists, drug-treatment experts, law-enforcement pros, and an inner-city principal from Phoenix didn't buy Bennett's bluster. That was news in itself. Even with the Iraq crisis dominating the front pages, the commission members expected the media to find room for their controversial look at the real drug war.
What many of them didn't count on was, as Camerino Lopez says, "the ways of the White House. You have to fight differently on that level than you do down here. There are different kinds of agendas there, different kinds of hit men."
The National Commission on Drug- Free Schools remains the best-kept secret on the block. And its members are unhappy about that.
"We weren't just messing around reading reports and wasting time," says Lopez. "Many of us did real things in real places all over the country. Everywhere we went, alcohol and tobacco stood out--it's what the kids told us, what the police agencies told us. It totally contradicted what I had expected to hear, but we had to run with it."
Bennett couldn't spike the commission's findings. There had been too many respected and independent voices on the panel. But he did what he could.
For starters, the 98-page report remained under wraps for about two months after it was completed. (Bennett spokesperson David Tell of the Office of National Drug Control Policy blames that delay on "technical" problems.) Then, one week before the report finally was made public November 15, czar Bennett resigned. At his well-attended farewell press conference, he didn't even mention the commission.
"Everyone in the world was there," says commission member Manya Ungar, "but he didn't even bother to say, `By the way, folks, we've got this critical report coming out that hundreds of people have worked on.' Dr. Bennett did the nation a disservice by just pretending his own commission didn't exist."
The silent treatment by Bennett worked. The Phoenix media have ignored the panel's easy-to-digest findings. So have the media in most of the nation's other metropolitan areas.
Ungar, the immediate past president of the National Parent-Teacher Association, uses a delicious anecdote to illustrate the political pressures brought to bear by Bennett.
"We met in Omaha this March and Dr. Bennett attended," says the Scotch Plains, New Jersey, educator. "I asked him afterward if anything was to be off-limits in our report, would it get vetoed. He said, `Just put in what you think.' I felt the door was open to call it like we saw it.
"About a half-hour later, Dr. Bennett was being interviewed by the media. They asked him what he thought about the fact that we were focusing on alcohol, not drugs. He said, I'm paraphrasing, that the commission knows the American public and parents are concerned about crack cocaine. If they--meaning the commission--say it's alcohol and cigarettes, they will be the laughingstock of this nation."
Bennett spokesperson David Tell bristles at the allegations. "First of all, we didn't write the report, so we are in no position to soft-pedal it," Tell says. "And the allegation that we somehow delayed or squashed this report, well, I don't know anything about that. I don't think that's happened."
The report is now in the hands of George Bush and the members of Congress. No one knows what will happen to it.
"I don't want this thing to end up on a shelf somewhere," says principal Lopez. "I think we have some things in there that can help people like myself in real-life situations. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't say so. I'm not going to quit on this thing--czar or no czar."
"I STARTED THE DRUG WAR here nine years ago," Camerino Lopez says from his office at Garfield School. "I found the drugs and I wanted to get rid of them. It wasn't overnight, but we're basically a drug-free school now. I think our drug-prevention efforts have a good chance of holding with a lot of these kids as they get older."
He excuses himself for a moment to deal with a pressing matter. "Where you been, guy?" Lopez asks a tardy pupil in a voice as hard as the rock he once chiseled in the underground copper mines of central Arizona. "You been screwin' up bad. I'm gonna take you and your mom to court, you tell her that. I can't find her anywhere. I'm gonna burn both of you unless you get your act together."
With that, Lopez sends the boy off to class. This big bear of a man admits he's much better at dealing with problems head-on than trying to understand the politics of the drug war.
"I hold onto a tight rein here," he says. "I have to. I'm relentless. I do what I have to do. That's how I've always been."
"They live a tough reality," Lopez says of his school's 875 pupils, a vast majority come from poor Hispanic families. (About 97 percent of the pupils are on free- or reduced-price-lunch programs. The primary language in about half the classrooms is Spanish.)
Now 46, Lopez wound up at Garfield the hard way.
The son of a hard-rock miner, Lopez grew up in Superior--about ninety minutes northeast of Phoenix. It's a town where brawn is admired and brawling is the norm. Lopez was blessed with a large body and a quick wit--both of which helped him survive.
His dad was a local legend as a tough guy. Dad also was an unyielding disciplinarian, and Lopez wouldn't have dared come home as a teen with booze on his breath. Like most Superior teens, however, he smoked marijuana. Being bad was a priority.
"I liked to read, but school meant nothing to me," Lopez says. "I didn't have any direction, and I thought I knew it all. I didn't know a damned thing."
He knew enough, however, to realize that opening a book now and then was easier than mining for copper. He spent a year at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff because "it seemed like a fun thing to do." But Lopez wasn't up to the rigors of academia.
"I felt like everybody owed me a living," Lopez recalls of those days. "I took off to Mexico, tramped in Baja, went on the bum, just basically survived. I had an uncle who finally shipped me back to Arizona."
After a time, Lopez wound up at the same underground mine in Superior where his father and many other relatives worked. About eight years later--"March 27, 1972, 6:15 p.m.," he recalls--Lopez suffered a serious back injury on the job.
As part of a settlement with Magma mining company, Lopez had to try college again. "I still wasn't sure what I was going to do with my life," he recalls. "I thought God had punished me by making me go back to school." Lopez chuckles when saying that.
He enrolled at Arizona State University and took education classes as a whim. To his surprise, he reveled in the challenge of teaching children. Lopez's first teaching job after graduating was at a school in Guadalupe. About five years and a few jobs later, the Phoenix Elementary District hired Lopez in 1981 as principal of Garfield.
He came to a school suffering from the maladies of most inner-city schools--apathy, gangs, drugs. Lopez started by making some small changes, for one changing Garfield's nickname from the Thunderbirds to the "Cats"--after the cartoon character.
"I wanted the kids to start identifying with their school more," he says, "and the `Cats' were one way to do it. No big deal, right? We ask the creator of Garfield [Jim Davis] for his permission and he says no. `Right, man.' So we just changed the damned cat a little bit and ran with it."
The slightly altered symbol is visible all over the schoolgrounds. The decor of Lopez's office includes numerous Garfield the Cat products, including a telephone.
A good school administrator is as much a counselor as a paper pusher, so one of Lopez's main tasks is to guide parents and kids. "I talk to them constantly about drugs and everything else," he says. "Constantly." An admirer of Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega, Lopez was one of the first in his district to welcome the DARE program, in which local cops preach to schoolchildren for several weeks about the dangers of drug use.
In 1987, Lopez met Bill Bennett, then the secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. "He wasn't big on bilingual education, to put it mildly," Lopez says, "but someone convinced him he ought to take a look at a school that seemed to be doing something right. We didn't prepare anything for him and his entourage. We didn't try to sell him. We just let him see how we do it here."
Bennett later included Garfield School and Camerino Lopez in his tract "Schools That Work." That 1987 meeting at Garfield, Lopez surmises, led to his appointment on the National Commission on Drug-Free Schools.
"I didn't campaign for it--I didn't even know it existed," Lopez says of his appointment. "Once again, I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting into. But I decided what the hell."
CONGRESS HAD ESTABLISHED the commission as part of its antidrug package of 1988. The panel's intense examination started in late August 1989, two weeks before George Bush went on television, shook a plastic bag of crack at the camera and declared a new war on drugs.
The commission members traveled across the nation. They visited seventeen schools and campuses, went to an intensive-care unit for drug-ridden babies, a center for abused and neglected infants, a shelter for runaways, a juvenile-detention center and a public housing project. They rode along on police and citizen patrols through inner-city neighborhoods and along the Mexican border. They spoke with scores of students, dropouts, teachers, school administrators, parents, street people.
Lopez and a few other adventurous colleagues avoided as many dog-and- pony shows as possible. "We'd sneak away and see what was really happening in a certain city," Lopez recalls. "We'd go into the heaviest-duty crack areas we could find and just talk to people, just like some reporters do. We were concerned with drug-free schools, but we talked to dropouts and tried to find out what they were thinking. We tried to get to the truth."
And the more they searched, the surer they were that alcohol and tobacco pose a larger threat to youth than illegal drugs.
"For me to come around to this way of thinking was really something," Lopez says. "It hit me bit by bit, and I wasn't sure how to get it across. I'm not used to working with committees. I'm used to working directly with people, and so I just came out and said what I was thinking. I learned that a lot of others had started to think the same way."
Most of the commission members, Lopez adds, seemed receptive to the new ideas that were hitting them.
"We had a good balance between researchers, bureaucrats and the rest of us," he says. "The congressmen were in their own worlds, and so were some of the others, but that's to be expected. If you wanted to learn something, you did."
Lopez says he started to sense what the commission would be up against during a February meeting in San Diego. Representatives from the Beer Institute, Smokers' Rights Alliance, Anheuser-Busch, and the Tobacco Institute spoke at the heated session.
"We live in a country where Spuds McKenzie is better known than Bush," Lopez says. "The kids in those ads look like they're college-age or below. We want to do something about that, but we also wanted to hear what the people who thought up Spuds had to say."
Lopez and most of the other commission members were not moved. Things weren't going the way Bill Bennett had envisioned.
"Most of us had gone into this with an open mind," says PTA's Manya Ungar, a veteran of national commissions on various subjects. "We did not go out soliciting a certain kind of testimony. We were commissioned to look at a complex subject and we did just that. Most us ended at a little different spot in our thinking. The last thing that usually happens in these things is that somebody changes their mind.
"It's a report any community could look at, any legislature could look at, any principal could look at and say, `Where do we fit into this gigantic puzzle?'"
Camerino Lopez also has had to try to figure out where his own values fit into the puzzle of the drug war.
He still smokes at least a pack of cigarettes a day and enjoys beer. "I've made these choices as an adult," he says of his vices. "They're not the right choices, but dammit, it's so hard to quit. I don't think that means I'm a hypocrite for wanting to keep kids away from the stuff."
A divorced father of two teenagers, Lopez won't allow his children even to sip a beer at home. And if they come home with booze on their breaths, he says, "I guess I'd be as upset as my dad would have been at me, though I won't get as physical. The kids tell me, `But you let us do it when we were younger, let us have a sip.' I tell them, `You're right. But I was wrong.'"
Bennett has tried to suppress the commission's findings and recommendations.
"Did anyone try to put political pressure on us not to conclude the way we did? The answer is yes."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The National Commission on Drug-Free Schools remains the best-kept secret on the block. And its members are unhappy about that.
"Bennett did the nation a disservice by just pretending his own commission didn't exist."
"I'm not going to quit on this thing--czar or no czar."
"We live in a country where Spuds McKenzie is better known than Bush.