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Harford's first Pledge Program students vow not to use drugs, help friends, family to be drug-free

Nine-year-old Sydney Heister used to worry that someone might pressure her to try drugs and that she’d take a little bit of it.

“But I’m not going to,” Sydney said Tuesday. “Because I don’t want to end up having a bad life and I want to play sports and get a job when I’m older.”

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Sydney, a fourth-grader at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, and her older brother, Aidan, 11, a fifth-grader, were among the first class to graduate from the Pledge Program through the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and Office of Drug Control Policy.

During the four-week program, geared toward elementary school students ages 8 to 11 years old, law enforcement, prevention specialists and medical personnel used age-appropriate information to educate students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

It was developed through the Sheriff’s Office community policing unit, when parents would ask when the right time is to talk with their children about the threat of drugs, and led by Sgt. Aaron Penman, whose son was one of the students participating.

A Maryland Behavioral Youth Study has shown that youth as young as sixth grade are starting to be introduced to the drug culture and Harford Couty wants to educate them on the dangers before it's too late.

“We know the answer is it’s never too early to have these conversations,” Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said at the graduation. “Over the last three weeks, the graduates learned things that all of us wish were not part of the process of growing up.”

Penman said he was a little apprehensive about how the children would react, but found they were very engaged in what they were learning and asked questions the showed they were interested.

“It was truly a rewarding experience,” Penman said.

The second Pledge Program is being planned for March or April and will be held at Havre de Grace Elementary School, he said.

The tools students learned in the program — how to recognize drugs and how to handle peer pressure — will help them be able to say no drugs when they encounter them.

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“It will give you the basis for a life or death decision, and if the day should come, we hope we have better prepared you for that day and for that decision,” Gahler told the graduates.

As part of their graduation, the students took the following oath:

“I pledge to live a drug free life, help my friends and family to be drug free, set a good example, respect my mind and body and show my friends that drug free life is a better life.”

Youth's Benefit Elementary School student Sydney Heister along with members of the first graduating class of the Harford County Pledge program from Youth's Benefit Elementary School take their official drug free pledge during Tuesday afternoon's graduation ceremony at the school.
Youth's Benefit Elementary School student Sydney Heister along with members of the first graduating class of the Harford County Pledge program from Youth's Benefit Elementary School take their official drug free pledge during Tuesday afternoon's graduation ceremony at the school.(Matt Button / The Aegis)

In addition to finding out how to deal with peer pressure, students learned about substance abuse, how it hurts people and how to avoid its dangers, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman told the parents.

“With these new skills, you will be leaders among your friends and classmates in keeping the community safe,” Glassman said. “The tools you have learned over four weeks will help protect you, your friends and your families from the bad things that can happen folks abuse drugs and alcohol.”

He urged all the students who participated in the program to share their experience with as many friends as they can.

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“I want all students in Harford County to achieve their biggest dreams, and you can’t do that if you’re fooling with drugs and alcohol and getting addicted to drugs,” Glassman said. “With your help, we can make all of Harford County drug free.”

Lisa Heister, Sydney and Aidan’s mother, said Sydney used to be anxious about drugs.

“She still knows they’re scary, but she doesn’t feel as anxious about it now that she’s gone through the program,” Heister said. “She’s more confident.”

Heister said she started discussing drugs with her children about a year ago, when they began hearing more and more about it in the news. And she wanted them to hear it from someone who wasn’t mom.

Twenty years ago, as the Harford County Sheriff’s Office deployed its first six school resource officers, some in Harford County questioned the need to put law enforcement officers in schools.

Aidan will be going to middle school next year and Heister knew it would be important for him to be well-informed.

“I also knew I was not giving him enough information, and this program would help fill those gaps,” she said.

Aiden said he feels sad to know people use drugs.

“They should know what it does to their body,” Aiden said. “If they know how bad it is, I don’t think anybody would do it.”

Caryn Ches knew her 8-year-old third grader, Lucas, was learning a lot in the program when her “man of few words” kept talking about what he learned.

He had had some discussions in school previously, but nothing Ches felt left an impression on her son.

“I wanted an extra program, extra support,” she said.

Lucas didn’t know much about drugs before he took the classes, he said. It was fun, and he learned a lot that will help him.

He’s not scared of drugs, “because if you don’t take them, you won’t get infected,” he said.

Andrew and Kira Jenkins, fifth-graders at Youth’s Benefit, also will be going to middle school next year.

“If people offer me drugs, I can say no,” Kira, 10, said. “I think it will be easy to say no, now that I learned this.”

“Because high schoolers taught us how to say no,” Aiden, also 10, said.

Members of the first graduating class of the Harford County Pledge program from Youth's Benefit Elementary School take their official drug free pledge during Tuesday afternoon's graduation ceremony at the school.
Members of the first graduating class of the Harford County Pledge program from Youth's Benefit Elementary School take their official drug free pledge during Tuesday afternoon's graduation ceremony at the school.(Matt Button / The Aegis)

Their mom, Kerri Jenkins, has been preaching at home about the dangers of drugs.

“I want them to hear about it from someone other than their parents, people they might not think are just being overprotective,” Jenkins said.

Her kids loved the program, she said, and came home telling her everything they learned.

She was OK with talking about overdoses and needles and other aspects of drug use and addiction, she said.

“I want them to hear all aspects of it,” Jenkins said. “I don’t want it to be a shock when they see it, I’d rather they see it in a learning environment versus a pressure environment.”

Not only were her kids surprised by some of what they learned, they were surprised people would even use drugs in the first place.

“They said they can’t believe people would do it and can’t believe they would ruin their life in such a way,” Jenkins said.

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