INNISFAIL – Most people acknowledge the shaky state of the world today compels everyone to make safe and responsible decisions for themselves and everyone around them.
The COVID-19 pandemic demands it.
For the young, there is increasing pressure to somehow fit in. Even with all the restrictions curtailing movements and socialization, the pandemic will not eliminate all peer pressure. Even the best intentioned and hardiest are not immune. They will be tested.
But last week on March 23 about 25 Grade 5 students from two classes at St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Catholic School had plenty to celebrate as they marked a significant achievement. They became the town’s first pandemic graduates of D.A.R.E., an acronym for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
Developed by law enforcement and school officials in 1983, D.A.R.E. was created as a formal way of introducing alcohol and drug use information to young people, and to lower the rate of substance abuse down the road.
“I learned how to not take drugs, and how bad they are for you, and I learned how to be a bystander, and to help others,” said 10-year-old local D.A.R.E. graduate Sullivan O’Dwyer, adding he believes he can use the program to better himself in every day life outside of school.
“I talk to some of my friends about it. I just tell them not to take drugs and how bad they are so they never take them.”
O’Dwyer and his fellow students at St. Marguerite completed 10 hours of D.A.R.E. instruction per class that began 12 weeks earlier in January. During their instruction students learned communication and confidence skills, and to make safe decisions when it came to drugs and alcohol. They also learned how to handle peer pressure and bullying.
“We deal with people who use what we call an aggressive or dominating behaviour. We don’t often times use the word bullying as adults but we all know that person who’s a little more dominating,” said Innisfail RCMP Const. Craig Nelson, the detachment’s community/school resource officer, who has been facilitating the local school D.A.R.E. program for the past four years.
“It is about being able to learn those skills as a young person so they can take those skills into adulthood and manage those issues as you grow older. Part of D.A.R.E. is to work with those issues in making those decisions.”
Nelson acknowledged the 2021 classes can claim to be the community’s first D.A.R.E. COVID graduation recipients.
“It’s exciting to have that success story, and that we were able to get into the schools and get this done with our students during this time of COVID,” said Nelson. “Last year we had to stop the program half way through and unfortunately weren’t able to finish.”
While the D.A.R.E. program centres around the dangers of drug and alcohol use, as well as peer pressure and bullying, Nelson conceded there was a “little bit” of a COVID lean during the 12 weeks of instruction.
“We talk about making those safe and responsible decisions, and that ties into all of life, and of course COVID being a big part of life now that we are facing, trying to make those safe and responsible decisions is part of that. Students can use the tenants of D.A.R.E. to make those responsible decisions,” said Nelson.
“So, in a roundabout way D.A.R.E. sort of touches everything,” he added. “Being that COVID is such a big part of the world now it definitely would have an impact into young people recognizing a decision needs to be made here in regards to COVID, whatever that is at that moment in time and how to employ the D.A.R.E. decision-making model in order to make the best decision in that situation.”
When the final class was over, each student had plenty to smile about. They were all graduating. Each student received a certificate. They were all given a D.A.R.E. t-shirt to take home. And there was a small heartfelt party at school, which included Dilly Bars from Innisfail Dairy Queen and Innisfail and District Victim Services, and juice boxes from Central Alberta Co-op.
Nelson said he had an “incredible” class this year, a smaller group than in previous years but one that had “awesome” discussions and offered up many insightful questions.
“I liked learning about bystanders and bullying,” said 10-year-old graduate Clara Hoffer. “I think that was my favourite part because I thought when we were learning about that we really did it in a fun way and laughed a lot.”