White County Sheriff’s Office has a new educational program School Resource Officers are taking to students under their firm belief that education is the key to building a strong future.
“Education is the key to everything,” Sheriff Steve Page said. “If we teach these kids, not just how to read and write, but about dangers that they will face and how to combat those and grow to be good, productive citizens as part of our community, then they will know. We can’t expect that they just have this knowledge. We have to give it to them. We have to do our part.”
This belief, along with concern from the SROs in regard to the lack of relationships they had with students, resulted in the department using the summer months to organize a new program called SSAFE (Sheriff’s Substance Abuse For Education).
“This takes the place of the old DARE program. This is local, and we can tailor it to what our students in our community are being exposed to and we can help them how they need to be helped,” Page explained.
Derrick Dale, the SRO at White County High School and one of the driving forces behind the program, said that, currently, presentations the SROs are bringing to the students are focusing on substance abuse due to the younger ages they are seeing students exposed to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
“Right now, we are working on substance abuse starting at the fifth-grade level and continuing through high school,” Dale said.
He further explained the education includes drugs and alcohol as well as tobacco use and vaping.
“In every presentation I’ve done with fifth graders, I’ve not had one student not know what vaping is. I’ve not had one student say they haven’t seen someone vape. I’ve even had some brave enough to admit they have tried it themselves - fifth graders.”
“We’ve had kids at elementary school bringing alcohol to school. Kids bringing a bag of pot to school,” Page said and further stated the early exposure isn’t limited to nicotine products. “If they don’t know what it is, if they don’t really understand how dangerous this is, we are going to lose them to addiction before they get the chance to graduate. I want to be sure we educate our kids.”
Dale said his goal through the program, beyond education, is to build a bridge between the students and the School Resource Officers.
“Once they get out of school, it is hard to try to mend those fences. I want to be able to reach the kids while I’m talking to them at school,” Dale said. “It is amazing the number of kids who are now coming up to our SROs after the presentations and are willing to talk. Maybe it isn’t even about what was in the presentation, but they are now seeing us as a trusted ally. They see that we are approachable, and we aren’t there to be the bad guy, we aren’t machines. We are there to help them. We want them to be successful, and we want to be a part of that with them.”
The program is targeted toward students from fifth grade up for a very specific reason: social anxiety. According to Page, the peer pressure that begins at this age is something they are hoping to combat with the SSAFE program.
“If we don’t educate them, if we don’t help teach them the right things, they are going to fall through the cracks,” Page said, “and that is what I am hoping this program will avert. I don’t want to lose kids because we didn’t step in and someone else did, someone who wasn’t looking out for them, someone who they were following but maybe wouldn’t have if we had given them a better option.”
“I tell the high school kids to look back at the fifth-grade version of themselves and see what has changed,” Dale said, agreeing with the sheriff’s claim that social anxiety is keeping them from asking questions or admitting that they need help. “The goal is to eventually bring the kid back out of them - to let them know we are here, and we are on their side.”
While in its initial stages the SSAFE program is focusing on substance abuse, the department has plans to expand the educational presentations they take to students to include topics such as bullying, internet risk, DUI and distracted driving, and whatever other topics that the SROs are finding students are struggling with.
“This is going to be an ongoing, developing program,” Dale said.
The plan is to give presentations to each of the county’s fifth-12th grade classrooms three to four times during each school year.
“We aren’t part of their curriculum, so we are dependent on the teachers to make time for us, too, and we know that’s hard with everything else that they need to do, but, if nothing else, we want to make sure that we make that connection with the kids,” Dale said.
Page said while the department’s School Resource Officers are the energy behind the program, and while the sheriff’s office will be working alongside principals and classroom teachers, it is still going to take the effort of the entire community to ensure students are getting the resources they need to combat the issues they will find in today’s society.
“This is a program to teach the kids the right things, but it isn’t a program that exists on its own - it takes all of us,” Page said about the SSAFE program. “We want parents to get involved with us and help us. Contact the SRO at your child’s school - ask what you can do. They will have plenty of ways that you can get involved. We need to work together to help these kids. Let’s make a difference.”
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