When Ofc. Teddy Bell first came into Deerfield Run Elementary School this year, the students were skeptical.
"They didn't consider this was a good thing for them," said Linda Ryland, a science and health teacher at the South Laurel school. "They could only see him in one light: 'Here comes the po-po.'"
Bell is the Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer in the Laurel Police Department, and spends time in several Laurel elementary schools teaching the D.A.R.E. program. This is the first year Deerfield Run has had the program geared toward good decision-making — like avoiding drugs, gangs and violence — and Ryland said it strengthens her health curriculum.
"We live close to a metro area, and in a municipality I consider to have an increasing level of crime because people are making bad decisions," she said. "That's the focus of the program: to help students make better decisions. This improves our curriculum because we have a role model coming in for the kids, a role model who has to deal with the consequences of people not making good decisions."
D.A.R.E. was founded in 1983 in Los Angeles, and is a program where police officers lead lessons, specifically targeted at fifth-graders, on how to resist peer pressure and live drug- and violence-free lives. Currently, Laurel Police teach bring the D.A.R.E. program to Deerfield Run, Scotchtown Hills, Bond Mill and Laurel elementary schools.
According to the city's website, more than 2,000 students have participated in D.A.R.E. over the years. Nationwide, more than 75 percent of school districts teach D.A.R.E.
Laurel's 10-week D.A.R.E. program includes a D.A.R.E. Day when students come to the Laurel Police Department to get a hands-on perspective on the work police officers do every day. For Deerfield Run, DARE Day was Wednesday, May 1, and almost 100 fifth-graders filled the station.
"We come to them, now they come to us," Bell said. "This is a good, fun way to teach them the importance of decision-making skills. We're giving kids the building blocks they need, especially as they get ready to go to middle school. They're going to be involved in peer pressure, being offered drugs and alcohol, and we're teaching them how to navigate these issues and become good citizens."
The Laurel Police Department has had the D.A.R.E. program for almost 25 years, said Capt. Constance Speake, and has held D.A.R.E. Days the past few years.
Speake said programs like D.A.R.E. and D.A.R.E. Days make police officers seem more approachable to kids, so when they see officers they won't be afraid. Beyond that, she said, D.A.R.E. Days are fun, too.
"This is fun and educational," she said. "This is kind of like a reward for the kids. We show them all of our equipment and they get a kick out of it."
'The good guys'
At D.A.R.E. Day, Deerfield Run students circulated among seven different stations within the building: a tour of the facility and sessions on evidence-gathering, Segways, the SWAT unit, the K9 unit, the simulator room where the students learned about Tasers and a presentation on how to combat bullying.
For several students, the best part of the day was learning about Tasers — seeing them, holding them and evening shooting them at targets.
"I learned what Tasers do — they make you stop moving so the police can get handcuffs on you," said Tie'Que Davis, 10. "It's important for us to know what the equipment is really for, and that's it's not to hurt you. It's all scary-looking, but it's used to protect you rather than hurt you."
Kaiya Rollins, 11, said her favorite part of the day was seeing the SWAT equipment — like Humvees the police department got from a military surplus unit after the vehicles had been in Iraq.
"You learn what this stuff really does," Kaiya said. "The stuff that looks scary isn't really that scary. It's used for good stuff, like protecting you."
The same goes for police officers, Tie'Que said. Her classmates agreed — police officers are the good guys, not the bad guys.
"Police officers save lives," said Angelica Nelson, 11. "They're heroes in our world."
If the program does what it's supposed to do, Ryland said, students will have a better perception of what police officers do.
"They don't always see the police officers for what they are," she said. "Even the station, as a building, has a negative aura for them. They don't see this family of people, or the station as a family unit with a common goal of enforcing the law. Hopefully, we'll see the students embracing the officers as part of their community family."