Etowah County Drug Task Force agents Kevin Overstreet (standing) and Josh Gaskin (in the vehicle) participate in the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office D.A.R.E. Camp for fifth graders.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office hosted its first D.A.R.E. Camp for Etowah County fifth graders on Wednesday, May 26 at the new Church of the Highlands campus in Gadsden.
Together, through the assistance of the Etowah County Commission and Etowah County Board of Education, the sheriff’s office coordinated a fun and interactive day designed to encourage elementary students toward a positive future.
Fifth graders from Gaston, John Jones, West End, Ivalee, Southside, Highland, Glencoe, Carlisle, Duck Springs and Hokes Bluff elementary schools attended the event, with school resource officers David Bankson, Jeremy Johnson, Russell Shaneyfelt, Garrett Pentecost, Summer Doran, Josh Page, Craig Tyler, Sgt. Lucas Hallmark, John Streefkerk and Lt. Justin Plunkett joining them. Students who participated in the D.A.R.E. Camp were selected from a lottery system after completing the D.A.R.E. program and writing an essay.
Cpl. Kofee Anderson of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, who serves as the Alabama D.A.R.E. coordinator, also attended the camp to extend his support for the program.
“It’s all about decision-making,” Anderson told WRBC Fox 6 News. “If we can teach them how to make good decisions, they can go on to be productive citizens.”
The camp featured five different activities for students, along with a presentation given by Attalla City Schools Lead Nurse Angie Horton on how drugs affect the body. The activities, divided into both indoor and outdoor stations, included an armored vehicle ride, a rock wall, impaired vision course (complete with a pedal kart and goggles), K9 demonstration and a mock crime scene, where students investigated and solved a case.
“Every piece of evidence tells a story,” said Investigator Stephen Hooks, who lead the mock crime scene. “You just have to know how to interpret that and put it on paper.”
The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program manifested in 1983 through a partnership between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District, which recognized education’s crucial role in the prevention of substance abuse. Despite the scarcity of drug prevention curriculum available for schools to implement at the time, LAUSD Health Education Curriculum Administrator Dr. Ruth Rich cultivated a curriculum of 17 lessons – taught by trained D.A.R.E. officers – geared toward elementary school students. The original curriculum taught specific information about certain drugs and the manner in which drugs affect the body.
Since its inception, D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness resulted in the creation and implementation of both middle school and high school curriculums nationwide. Following Jonathon Horton’s election as sheriff, the D.A.R.E. Camp represents a resurgence of the program’s impact on Etowah County with the goal of investing in local youth at its center.
“D.A.R.E. is a very structured program,” said Horton. “It has a lot of research based in it – that’s one of the things I cling to it for; it’s got a lot of consistency. It’s about trying to flatten the curve and get ahead of it and be proactive, [but] it’s simply a good decision-making model. They do a lot of small groups and a lot of interaction. 32 to 44 percent of students that completed D.A.R.E. in fifth or seventh grade were less likely to use substances such as alcohol or tobacco…that’s a pretty impactful thing to me.”
D.A.R.E. focuses on fifth and seventh graders, forming positive decision-making habits in students before they enter middle and high school. While D.A.R.E. maintained a presence in Etowah County for a number of years, after 2014 several schools transitioned to alternate programs like Too Good For Drugs.
The reimplementation of D.A.R.E. throughout Etowah County coincides with Horton’s initiative to place SROs in all county schools to create a safe environment for all students. In June of 2020, the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office hosted a D.A.R.E. training conference to certify 14 SROs in the curriculum. The two-week extensive training consisted of 80 hours of instruction, with stringent requirements concerning interaction, attendance and attention. Officers received training via a state educator on three methods of teaching and learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.
Horton also noted that while D.A.R.E. addresses the importance of proactively making beneficial decisions, its cohesion with local SRO officers maintains a positive representation of law enforcement officers for students to witness. Likewise, the county’s commitment to its students portrays its willingness to help establish strong future generations of citizens.
“Anything we educate ourselves about gives us a better ability to make a correct informed decision,” said Horton. “[D.A.R.E.] also bridges this communication between parents. The parents see that we’re reaching out, we’re investing and trying with their kids and the community. [The goal is] for kids that grow up to know that guy wearing the uniform is my friend and for the parents to know the guy wearing the uniform is trying to help them, to see to it that their kids become productive members of society. It’s just a win-win for everyone.”
Horton commended the combined efforts of the Etowah County Commission, Etowah County Board of Education and sheriff’s office for their dedication to ensure the camp’s success. He expressed his gratitude for those who coordinated the event, thanking Lt. Plunkett, Sgt. Hallmark, Executive Sheriff’s Assistant Tammy Bean, the sheriff’s office’s Kelley McGinnis and all SROs who collaborated to determine the activities for the students and safeguard the event operated smoothly. Horton thanked the Church of the Highlands for allowing the use of their facility, Innocorp, Ltd. for the donation of the Dies Winding Sidewalk Mat and Etowah County Commission President Jamie Grant for providing the pedal kart and goggles for the impaired driving simulation. He emphasized the county’s municipal partners, noting the partnership between Rainbow City, Southside and Altoona allows the county to protect a greater number of schools.
“The most important thing to me was seeing those fifth graders smile and get to come to D.A.R.E. Camp,” said Horton. “I think our staff was so energized by the reaction of their excitement and I know the officers loved it. I see them cutting up with the kids and having fun with the people that came – teachers, administration and students. It was a really good day. That’s my thing; I love kids and to see all of them happy…that makes me happy. The D.A.R.E. Camp means a lot to me, because of the work that went on behind the scenes. There is a lot of accountability in D.A.R.E., to go through all that red tape and get all those I’s dotted and T’s crossed, which I appreciate. Because we’re dealing with the most precious thing in the world – our fifth graders, who will be our future.”