OAKDALE -- Sixth-graders at Fair Oaks Elementary School watched with pinched brows and frowns as their classmate was taken away in handcuffs Tuesday morning.
Authorities told them Daniel Linares, 12, had stolen a vial of methamphetamine from a display and that he would be arrested. Linares is a sixth-grader at another school in Oakdale, Sierra View Elementary.
The students watched as Linares appeared to be booked into a makeshift Juvenile Hall, tried in court and placed on probation.
Eventually, the students realized Linares was acting and that his misbehavior was part of an anti-drug program called "The Drug Store." Linares' mother, Donna, also took part, watching her son get fingerprinted and, later, carried away on a stretcher.
"It was scary," said Jade Roman, another 12-year-old from Sierra View. "At first, it looked real."
Nearly 400 students, all the sixth-graders in Oakdale Joint Unified School District, visited Fair Oaks to participate in the program, which will be staged in Newman next week. During the event, students learn about the perils of drug abuse by watching presentations in seven tents. Each station warns about where drugs can lead.
The roughly 30 students who went through "The Drug Store" did not know a peer had been chosen earlier to act in the program.
"I thought they were really going to take (my friend) away," said Armando Vargas, 11, who was in a different group.
The students seemed to get the message: Drugs can kill. One mistake can ruin your life. And your decisions affect your parents, friends and those around you.
"The Drug Store" lasts more than an hour. After Linares was put on probation, students watched him collapse at a party with high school students, then die from an overdose. The final scene is his funeral. Afterward, the sixth-graders talk about what they saw.
Students can get emotional as they try to figure out what's real, said Michelle Gregory, a special agent with the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, who helped organize the event.
"It has an impact on them, but it's one that gets them thinking," she said. "It gets them thinking about consequences and the choices they make. They go home and talk about it to younger siblings, older siblings and their parents. That's what prevention's all about, teaching them and having them talk about it."
The program that involves local, county, state and federal agencies costs $10,000 to $12,000 to put on, Gregory said, most of which is covered by donations and grants. "The Drug Store" stresses collaboration between law enforcement agencies and people who work the same jobs as the roles they play in the re-enactments: Deputy probation officers staff the pseudo-Juvenile Hall. A judge presides over the court proceedings. Paramedics and emergency medical technicians try to revive the student who appears to overdose. And a pastor gives the memorial speech at the funeral.
As the kids realize that what they're watching is a drama, hearing from people who see stories like Linares' in their daily lives gives extra weight to the "say no to drugs" message, Gregory said.
"The Drug Store" started at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the 1990s, said Professor Brian F. Geiger, who is assistant director of the school's Center for Educational Accountability. He co-wrote a manual teaching people how to replicate the program outside the university.
For the program to be effective, Geiger said, it has to be part of a semester or yearlong effort to educate kids about drug abuse.
"I don't have any data to show its effectiveness," he said. "I know it's been hugely popular. But you have to look at more than just the reaction when people leave the event."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2235.