For some kids, D.A.R.E. is the only positive interaction with law enforcement they’ve had.”
– Litchfield Police Officer Aaron Nelson.
Aaron Nelson of the Litchfield Police Department has been a D.A.R.E. officer since 2006. He enjoys interacting with students at Litchfield Middle School and the School of St. Philip.
”A world in which students everywhere are empowered to respect others and choose to lead lives free from violence, substance abuse and other dangerous behaviors.”
Give a group of fifth-graders fatal vision goggles, and laughter will erupt as they take turns attempting to walk a straight line.
“It felt like the Earth was tipping back and fourth,” fifth-grader Camille Loch said. “I felt like I was going to fall on my side.”
While it’s a fun activity, its safety message resonates throughout Litchfield Middle School.
“Alcohol affects your whole body,” said Litchfield Police Officer Aaron Nelson, who administers the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program at Litchfield Middle School and the School of St. Philip. “Think about what happens when people drink and drive. They put themselves and a lot of other people at risk.”
As they staggered down the line, most far from keeping on course, students experienced with a sober mind what it’s like to be under the influence of alcohol. A simple task became an ‘aha’ moment as they realized how susceptible they are to potentially dangerous consequences of impairment.
“I started to feel sick,” fifth-grader Kamryn McWherter said. “It was like I was going to face plant,” added fifth-grader Anna Sorgatz.
While walking the line, students were asked to toss a ball to Nelson, another lesson in how alcohol impairs a person’s balance, vision, reaction time and judgment.
“Wow, totally missed that one,” said a fifth-grader whose ball toss missed Nelson’s reach entirely, instead nearly hitting a nearby vending machine.
Illegal drugs and increased drug use among teenagers continues to threaten the safety, health and future of children.
D.A.R.E. envisions a world in which students everywhere are empowered to respect others and choose to lead lives free from violence, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviors. Launched in 1983, the comprehensive K-12 education program is taught in thousands of schools in America and 52 other countries.
Impairment simulation goggles are just one of the engaging and hands-on demonstrations about the misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs that the D.A.R.E. program provides through its “Keepin’ It Real” course of study. Highly interactive curricula address drugs, violence, bullying, peer pressure and other high-risk circumstances that today are too often a part of students’ lives.
Nelson has administered the D.A.R.E. program since it was launched in Litchfield in the 2006-07 school year. This year, he teaches four D.A.R.E. classes at Litchfield Middle School and a fifth class at the School of St. Philip.
About 110 Litchfield students are in D.A.R.E. this year. Students are just over halfway through the eight-week program, taught once a week on Wednesdays. The D.A.R.E. program will conclude with a graduation ceremony Oct. 27 in the Litchfield Middle School gymnasium.
After wrapping up his final D.A.R.E. class of the day Sept. 27, Nelson received many greetings from current and past D.A.R.E. students.
“Hi, Officer Nelson!” a young boy exclaimed as they passed one another in the hallway. “See you next week!”
With law enforcement often getting a bad rap in the media, Nelson, a police officer in Litchfield since 2004, is thankful for D.A.R.E. and the opportunity to connect with youth. These interactions also help him see the community in a different light and gain perspective.
Although recent events, including police shootings and student arrests, have damaged trust, D.A.R.E. continues to have a positive effect on attitudes toward police. “For some kids, D.A.R.E. is the only positive interaction with law enforcement they’ve had,” Nelson said. The program demonstrates that peace officers are real people, and “you can approach us,” he added.
Nelson begins D.A.R.E. classes with law enforcement trivia. “It’s kind of a fun way to start the class and get us interacting together,” he said.
Nelson hopes D.A.R.E. can continue to spread the message that “if you see us, it’s not always a bad thing.”
Nelson said the Litchfield Police Department is grateful for community support, especially for opportunities to be present in local schools, which has been proven to reduce juvenile crime. “It gives me a connection to the community through the kids,” he said of the D.A.R.E. program. “That’s invaluable, especially for a community the size of Litchfield.”
Grounded in cultural norms, the Middle School substance abuse prevention program teaches youth how to live drug-free lives confidently, drawing on the strengths of the students, their families and communities. The acronym “REAL” is the central message of the curriculum and teaches youth four ways to refuse drug offers — Refuse, Explain, Avoid and Leave.
D.A.R.E., Nelson explained, helps students develop basic skills needed to make responsible choices that include abstaining from use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, addressing peer pressure and forming healthy friendships. The skills students learn, he emphasized, extend beyond drugs and alcohol to responsible decision making, positive relationships, mature life choices, self-awareness and communication.
According to information from D.A.R.E. International’s website, the program teaches youth to control their impulses and think about risks and consequences resulting in more responsible choices. D.A.R.E. believes that if youth can be taught to make safe and responsible decisions, it will guide them to healthy choices, not only about drugs, but across all parts of their lives. As they grow to be responsible citizens, they will lead healthier and more productive, drug-free lives.
D.A.R.E. officers and other school based law enforcement officers are the first line of defense in America’s schools. Their job is to educate children but also to prevent school violence and intruders who might try and enter a school to harm children and others.
Nelson said the D.A.R.E. program has evolved to include more hands-on and small-group activities, not simply officers giving lectures.
The D.A.R.E. program will conclude with students writing essays about what they learned and why they want to be drug and alcohol free. Each year, four essays are selected to be read at the graduation ceremony.
Nelson’s favorite part of being a D.A.R.E. officer: that’s easy — “Just working with the kids. It’s a different aspect of my job,” he said.
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