By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Escorted by the Niagara County Sheriff’s Honor Guard and decked out in their new red, white and blue T-shirts, fifth-graders at Meadow Elementary School on Wednesday became the first North Tonawanda students in years to graduate from the D.A.R.E. program, which emphasizes substance abuse prevention and other skills.
Students who completed the nine-week program received certificates and shook the hands of NT Police Chief Randy Szukala, Mayor Rob Ortt and others at the ceremony. Principal Janet Matyevich estimated that it’d been about eight years since district students were able to take part in the program.
“We were thrilled to get it back,” she said. “Our fifth-graders were the test group for the district and they’ve really, really enjoyed it.
“It’s very worthwhile. It’s a program that empowers them to make good choices ... even when those around them might not do so.”
Deputy Robert Richards of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department said that, while many school districts dropped D.A.R.E. when New York state defunded it in 2008, it’s been a priority for Sheriff James Voutour to maintain it in the county.
“Sheriff Voutour wanted to reach out to North Tonawanda ... and kids in the city. We’re all part of the same county,” he said. “We got into talks with (the school district) and brought the program back.”
Niagara County D.A.R.E., which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is funded mostly through fundraisers, including an annual golf tournament and other events, Richards said. It gives law-enforcement officials — including Niagara County Deputy Scott Gebhardt, who taught the NT classes — a way to get acquainted with students in a positive setting, he said.
“It gives them an opportunity to ask questions and let them know that while we’re here to teach, we’re also here to break those barriers,” he said. “We talk about peer pressure, the different kinds of drugs. We emphasize decision-making. We talk about bullying, cyber bullying ... we try to teach them confidence, that it’s OK to make those hard decisions ... to be a leader.”
Teacher Megan Lundgren said her students enjoyed the program, as well as learning from it.
“I think it was great,” she said. “It really taught the kids some good facts about the dangers of smoking and drugs. I was surprised how much they remembered as far as the facts go.”
Each student wrote an essay at the end of the session about what they’d learned, from decision-making skills to drug-abuse facts.
“It was fun,” said student Josh Morrison, listing things he’d learned during the past nine weeks. “It’s illegal to sell tobacco to kids ... to anyone under age 18. And don’t drink and drive ... or else you could get into a car accident.”
The program will continue in January at Ohio Elementary School. Richards said that all the NT elementary schools will participate in it by the end of the school year.
D.A.R.E. started in Los Angeles in 1983. Richards said the program started in Niagara Country in 1989.