In the District of Columbia's most troubled neighborhoods, the prevalence of drug use is doing more than spreading addiction and violence: It is seeping into the world of children's play.
Mimicked drug deals, conducted with glee by children younger than 10 years old, have been noticed for months now on the sandlots and schoolyards of the city by elementary school teachers and adults who counsel youths at recreation centers.From their accounts, often identical scenarios emerge:
As children huddle, drug games begin. From one child's pocket comes chalk, crushed to resemble cocaine, inside clear plastic sandwich bags smuggled from home. Soon another child passes cash-thick knots of Monopoly money, or notebook paper, wrapped with rubber bands and dubbed "bankroll."
The playful deals take place with discreet precision. Tiny hands flash fake dope amid a burst of tough whispers. Those who play must move fast. Hesitation allows other friends, acting like police officers, to leap from imaginary cars and make rough arrests before the deals conclude.
"When they play those games, the kids say they do everything like they've seen it - with the runners, the lookouts, the users, the jump-out squads, the regular police, everybody," said Ed Wilson, a D.C. Recreation Department counselor. "Everything is done exactly like you see on the street."
In recent interviews, 12 educators and youth counselors said they have watched in disbelief as children have begun to play games that closely mimic the drug culture that unfolds daily outside their homes and schools. And they are worried that today's make-believe will become tomorrow's real-life roles.
"It's a direct imitation of the real thing," said DeCasto Brown, a counselor in the city's Operating Services Assisting Youth program.
"When they play the games, it's, `We'll be the hustlers, you be the jump-outs,' " said Brown. "Anything the kids see on the streets, they just make into role-playing. It's like they're preparing for the next step - to sell drugs for real."
The drug games have been observed in neighborhoods miles apart, in three of the city's quadrants; yet counselors' and educators' accounts of what they have seen are strikingly similar.
They said the games begin when the players, usually ages 6 to 10, assume the roles of either drug hustlers or police jump-out-squad members, who swoop without warning upon a curbside drug market and make arrests. "Jump-outs" are integral to Operation Clean Sweep, the D.C. police department's well-publicized effort to eliminate street-level drug sales.
As with cops-and-robbers routines of years past, those who play the games confront and chase one another, sometimes conducting fake drug deals and drug busts. The "pushers" copy real dealers - using their tactics, shouting their slang or crudely crafting imitations of the substances that are sold round-the-clock on at least 83 street corners in the District.
"Everybody is playing `Hustlers' all the time," said a 10-year-old boy one recent afternoon in the Garfield Heights neighborhood. He stood with a group of six friends, all of whom said they were under the age of 11. All of them said they play the games often after school and, sometimes, at recess.
"It would be reassuring if children were pretending to be superdetectives, or wanted to chase down drug dealers," said Dr. Jim Breiling, who researches youth delinquent and deviant behavior for the National Institute of Mental Health. "But if it's `Hey, I got away, I hid the stuff,' there's a basis for real concern. Rehearsing things like that is a form of legitimizing and accepting it."