EMPIRE — The large man in an orange prison jumpsuit cuffed at the legs and hands didn't like the snickering. A burly guy with tattoos and a scraggly goatee, he jumped up from his seat, pushing a desk aside.
"You think this is funny?" he said, glaring at a sixth-grade student. "I'm here for you guys. I'm not here for me. I took drugs and hurt someone — they aren't ever coming back. I got 25 years to life. This is what happens when you take drugs. Make a bad decision and I could be your roommate. And if you get something I like, I'm going to take it from you."
When things settled down, students asked the inmate actor questions about prison life. Then he asked them about their dreams. They wanted to be doctors, police officers, lawyers, football players, stunt men and women, and teachers.
"You think drugs are going to help you get there?" he asked.
The inmate actor was part of an anti-drug simulation Thursday that took 250 Empire Elementary School sixth-graders through eight scenarios, from a briefing about drugs and their side effects to a court hearing to a fatal emergency room visit.
Though students and parent volunteers knew the scenes were staged, it still had an impact. Some children and adults teared up during hospital and funeral performances.
Giovanni Angeles, 12, said he'll never go to a party without permission and learned about the effects of methamphetamine use.
"I'm going to think twice," he said. "Sometimes, you should think and take responsibility for your actions. And I learned that you shouldn't do drugs because some people are watching you," he said, referring to the law enforcement, probation and court officials.
The program, called the Drug Store Project, is meant to scare students straight about the dangers of drug use, the prison system, and the lasting effects of court sentencing and fines. It's modeled after Every 15 Minutes at high schools, where medical personnel and students act out fatal drunk-driving car accidents.
"By sixth grade, you're already making decisions, settling in with your cliques of friends. Some of you are picking the drugs you'll do," National Guard 1st Sgt. Ron Biggs said. He works in the Stanislaus County Office of Education's prevention programs.
Schools across the county participate in the program, including those in Oakdale and Hughson. Since schools are slashing budgets, the cost is covered through fund raising and volunteers.
While students were jarred by the simulations, parents were disquieted by the number of adolescents who have been exposed to drugs and the courts.
In one class of 30, more than three-fourths of students knew someone who uses drugs or who is on probation.
"It's about exposing students to the process, that if they make a choice to engage in illegal behavior or drugs, this is the path it will take you," said Kathy Machado, assistant principal at Empire Elementary. "These are some terrible consequences."
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.