Napa County elementary students might meet five new D.A.R.E. instructors in their classrooms soon.
The Napa County Sheriff’s Office has hosted 27 prospective Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers from 12 law enforcement agencies across the western U.S. for the past two weeks. Their 80-hour training session culminated in a graduation Thursday after officers taught classes in Napa County schools. Four Sheriff’s deputies and one St. Helena Police Department officer — the first D.A.R.E. officer in the department — participated in the training.
The D.A.R.E. program was founded in 1983 and has since spread to thousands of schools across the world, according to its website. Officers have taught millions of students how to resist peer pressure in situations involving drugs, alcohol and more.
“We’re building a relationship with the kids who will ultimately be the future,” said Napa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ryan Woolworth, who coordinates the office’s D.A.R.E. efforts.
This isn’t the D.A.R.E. of your childhood, or of your kid’s childhood, said Dennis Osborn, the regional D.A.R.E. Director. D.A.R.E. switched to evidence-based curriculum in 2008.
Kids are exposed to a lot. The emphasis now is on healthy decision-making, not teaching kids about drugs, he said. Curriculum is frequently reevaluated and includes timely topics such as vaping, opioids and cannabis, since more states have moved to legalize the drug in some capacity.
At Vichy Elementary School, fourth and fifth grade teacher Sally Zickmund’s class learned from Napa County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Rist, who taught a lesson on nonverbal communication. He called a student to the front of the class and asked him to mime different emotions.
Rist called on students to read aloud various scenarios — a girl facing pressure to smoke or a student shirking responsibility for a group project — and asked the class how they would respond.
He taught them a different D.A.R.E. neumonic device to help students think about their options when faced with a difficult social situation: define the problem, assess your choices, respond to the situation, and evaluate whether it was a good decision.
A few doors down, Lake County Sheriff‘s Deputy Sarah Hardisty and U.S. Army Sgt. Chris Ryan taught a group of fourth graders about peer pressure. They shared the story of Sofia, a girl who stole sunglasses to fit in with a group of popular girls, and asked students to press their hands together in front of their chests.
You can’t see pressure.
“But can we feel it?” Ryan said.
While Hardisty and Ryan pressed kids to think about consequences of inaction or falling to peer pressure, the class had fun, too.
They did the wave. Hardisty fielded questions about what it’s like to be a police officer and Ryan regaled students with a story about the time he flew over Dodger Stadium with a helicopter.
Officers played with students on the blacktop when it came time for recess. One officer said she played on the slide and went rock climbing with students.
Teacher Zickmund said D.A.R.E. helps students become comfortable around authority figures and gives them practical advice on how to avoid sticky situations as they head to middle school, where kids become less sheltered, she said. Her classes have participated in the program for all 16 years that she’s taught at Vichy and the curriculum has evolved to keep up with trends.
“By preparing (younger students) to stand up for themselves, make good decisions … those are such good tools,” Zickmund said.
Officers gathered at the Napa County Sheriff’s Office to debrief after giving their lessons. D.A.R.E. Mentor Randy Kirkman spoke of how arresting the same people over and over again can make officers start to lose hope. But working with kids can make officers feel different.
“Maybe I do have an opportunity to do good,” he said.
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Officers said the lessons made them hopeful for the future. One spoke of how he was asked to sign a student’s D.A.R.E. sticker.
“Man, it made me feel like a rockstar,” one officer told the group.
Seeing the excitement on kids’ faces was especially rewarding since members of the public don’t always react that way, he said. Another officer said his lesson inspired a girl to confess to her teacher that she stole a classmate’s cell phone.
A female officer said she found it meaningful that little girls had a chance to see a woman in a position of power. A Spanish-speaking officer said he believed he made an impact on Hispanic students in his class.
“There was a lot of recruiting going on there,” joked one officer who said his class was particularly inquisitive.
Not all of the students were happy to see the officers.
St. Helena Police Department Officer Stephanie Lupien shared that half of the students in her classroom had their hands up, as in “hands up, don’t shoot,” she said. But the students were happy they came by the end of the class, she said.
“We are what’s going to make a difference in showing this kids that we’re not all bad,” Lupien said.
At the end of the sharing session, D.A.R.E. instructors shook hands with their pupils. Somebody played Pomp and Circumstance on a cellphone speaker.
The 27 officers were among 900 people who graduated the D.A.R.E. program this year, said Regional Director Osborn. This year, 90 new agencies started participating in D.A.R.E. The program is significantly expanding, he said.
Woolworth of the Sheriff’s Office D.A.R.E. program said the office currently employs eight officers who teach 10 weeks of lessons at four schools in American Canyon and three schools in unincorporated Napa County.
Officers focus on fifth graders, who are soon headed to middle school and will be exposed to more. Spending time with students is especially important in the era of social media, where face-to-face interaction may be less frequent, and during a time when officers are portrayed negatively, he said.
Woolworth, who got involved in D.A.R.E. because he has kids of his own, said it’s important to teach kids to stand up for themselves and make good choices when picking friends.
“You can say no to drugs, but what got you there?” Woolworth said.
Andrew Risley, an American Canyon Police Department officer who participated in the training, said D.A.R.E. wasn’t what he expected it to be. It was less about drugs and more about managing stress and peer pressure.
American Canyon is supportive of its officers and it was rewarding to see the excitement on students’ faces during Thursday’s classroom exercise, he said. People often see officers as a uniform, “not so much as a face with a name and a story behind us,” he said.
Officers can wear a lot of hats and it’s important to find an outlet, such as D.A.R.E., that they enjoy and gives officers a chance to reset, he said.
“I just look forward to getting into my own classroom,” Risley said.