Smiles, tears and hugs intermingled at the graduation ceremony held Friday afternoon at in Eureka for 87 graduates of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. While it was a day based on achievement of the fifth graders who just completed a 10-week course with D.A.R.E. police officer Jennifer Werges, the announcement that the D.A.R.E. program no longer would be conducted at elementary schools stunned the parents in attendance.
"The D.A.R.E. program is really informational," said Lori Passiglia, whose daughter graduated from the program five years ago and now is a sophomore at . "I was really excited to have my second child participate in the program this year because my daughter still goes back to things learned in D.A.R.E. And, I assumed my third child would get to benefit from the program as well."
Another Eureka parent who also has a high school sophomore and now a Blevins fifth grader who graduated from the program, Lisa Livingston, said she believed D.A.R.E. was valuable community support for local kids. She was not aware of the district's decision on Thursday to cancel the D.A.R.E. offering after this school year until Friday afternoon's ceremony.
"The messages and information associated with D.A.R.E. would have more of an impact coming from a police officer," Livingston said.
During the ceremony at Blevins, Eureka police officer Werges explained the D.A.R.E. program teaches students how to stand up for themselves. "One of biggest benefits of D.A.R.E. is that it gives children strategies for making good overall decisions. Those strategies are relevant, whether you're 11 or 12 or 40," she said.
"Lessons from D.A.R.E. get you through the tricky parts of life."
Components of D.A.R.E. cover tobacco, alcohol, drugs and over-the-counter medicines as well as prescription drugs. "Education is key. D.A.R.E. students learn exactly what the different types of drug abuse will do to their bodies and to them socially," Werges said.
She said students are shocked about the concept that prescribed drugs can be harmful because they view them as "medicines," and that items purchased so readily from stores can be problematic.
One huge supporter of the D.A.R.E. program is Chief Michael Wiegand, who said Rockwood School District was the very first entity in St. Louis County to execute the national D.A.R.E. program in 1988.
"Today is bittersweet, because it's a special graduation, but it's also the last graduating ceremony we'll have here at Blevins," said Wiegand. "Thank you for allowing us to spend time with your children."
Wiegand initiated a partnership with Rockwood to execute the drug abuse education program after he discovered its expansive ability to build lasting relationships. "Anytime we can part of your kids' lives, we want to be. We want them to consider us as friends. We're here for them, we're here for you (as parents)," he said at the ceremony.
He said he has written to several U.S. presidents to invite them to come see the success of the local D.A.R.E. program.
Wiegand's commitment to the program extends to training D.A.R.E. officers through his leadership in the St. Louis area police chief association.
He did add that D.A.R.E. still would be executed locally in parochial schools.
Emotions were difficult to juggle at the ceremony. At one point, officer Werges was overwhelmed at the podium and shed a few tears. Parents in attendance did the same. A standing ovation spontaneously transpired.
Werges, who has been a police officer since 1995, said what she enjoys most about D.A.R.E. is that it is one of the few proactive ways those in law enforcement can help others. "In police work, a lot of what we do is about reacting to calls. The barbecue's already gotten out of hand. The harm's already been done. The accident's already happened. The people are already hurt."
She said D.A.R.E. enables officers to truly get involved in positive, reinforcing ways with children and their parents. "It's not if, it's when, the day is coming about your child being asked if they want to try a drug. It happens right here in our community. I really believe D.A.R.E. makes a difference," she said.
She also said the rapport built between officers and elementary school students extends to middle and high school.
When it was time for Blevins' teacher Karen Huber's class to receive their D.A.R.E. graduation certificates, she said, "Now students, think back to what we learned in class about government, our rights, freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Remember what you can do to get your D.A.R.E. program back."
Part of the D.A.R.E. program is that each child submits an essay, with the topics covering various types of drug abuse lessons. Winners of each of the four Blevins' classes were:
- Dylan Bodendieck
- Steven Yergensen
- Nicole Walker
- Adrianna Arnold
Each of the four winners read their essays during Friday's event.
Additionally, an illustration done by Paige Rhine was chosen to adorn the program for the ceremony as well as the customized cake served afterward. Illustrations from all graduating students decorated the Blevins' gym, surrounding participants with creativity and life lessons learned.