Munster school students cheer from the sidewalk as the parade passes by.

James Ghrist still remembers his first D.A.R.E. class as a fifth-grader at Elliott Elementary.

“It had a big impact on my career choice,” said Officer Ghrist, a D.A.R.E. officer for 19 of his 22 years on the force.

“I believe the information is helpful,” Ghrist said. “The information is very important for children’s safety and it had an impact on my career choice.”

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program nationally and its 35-year anniversary in Munster, a parade of first-responder vehicles made its way Friday morning to the four public and two parochial schools serviced by the Munster Police program.

With students standing outside, waving signs of support, the parade started at Eads Elementary, proceeding to St. Paul’s Lutheran, St. Thomas More Catholic, Wilbur Wright Middle School, and Elliott and Hammond elementaries.

A program that started in 1983 in Los Angeles as part of the U.S. war on drugs, D.A.R.E. teaches children to recognize and resist the direct and subtle pressures that influence them to experiment with alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other drugs.

Ghrist works with the elementaries, teaching kindergarten, grades one, three and five, and middle school grades at the parochial schools. Officers Gabe Isenblatter and Kevin Cooley teach D.A.R.E. at Wright Middle School.

Ghrist noted that, in addition to drug awareness, the D.A.R.E. curriculum addresses following rules and obeying laws, obeying their parents, Internet safety, calling 911, wearing seatbelts and bike helmets, and stranger danger.

Other topics covered, especially for older students, Ghrist said, include risks and consequences, making positive choices, managing stress, effectively communicating, and preventing bullying.

In addition to the officers, fifth-graders hear from Munster High School role models who address peer pressure and answer questions about the middle and high schools.

Munster D.A.R.E. is completely funded through donations from local residents, businesses, and community organizations.

“D.A.R.E. provides students with important skills to keep them away from drugs and other destructive decisions,” Ghrist said. “We give them skills to help them become good citizens.”

According to Nicole M. Guernsey, principal at Elliott, “The D.A.R.E. program empowers children with knowledge and encouragement to stay away from things that are harmful to their body. It also gives them the bravery to say no when their peers are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

The Elliott principal added that uniformed officers enable children to feel safe and protected. “At Elliott, we work to instill character traits in our students,” Guernsey said. “Officers act as role models for these traits, such as respect, integrity, courage and leadership. They teach self-responsibility. As students grow, their decisions shape their future.”

Eads is home to Ghrist’s office, and Principal Linda Bevil said that through D.A.R.E., “students are able to build trust with Munster police officers. It’s not just about drugs.”

Involved with D.A.R.E. for 32 years, Bevil cited the building of relationships between students and police.

With two children in D.A.R.E., School Superintendent Brett Heller, Ph.D., commented, “D.A.R.E. is phenomenal. The more we can do to create awareness, the better chances we have of students handling difficult situations.”

As the procession of vehicles passed participating schools, students cheered, waved, and held banners.

Troy Jarrett, 14, an eighth-grader at Wright Middle School, said D.A.R.E. has taught him to “stay away from drugs.”

“And alcohol,” added classmate Deni Staehly, 14. “Alcohol can cause health problems and it’s bad for you.”

Jarrett added that a police presence in school helps him feel safer.

Police Chief Steve Scheckel, a former D.A.R.E. officer, noted, “We’re very proud of D.A.R.E.. It’s one of the longest programs in the department.”

Adding that the department is looking to expand D.A.R.E. to the high school next year, Scheckel said the program “builds great relationships with kids.”

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