For more than 35 years, the phrase "Just Say No" has been part of the American consciousness as the cornerstone of numerous anti-drug and alcohol abuse programs and curricula. But as the opioid epidemic continues to grow and concerns about adolescent and pre-adolescent substance abuse remain, communities have begun searching for other approaches. In Cranford, N.J., the police department’s school resource officers have taken the lead in what has become a communitywide effort based not on "Just Say No," but rather on "Why do people keep saying 'Yes?'"
Although Cranford's Project A.L.E.R.T. (Adolescent Learning Experience Resistance Training) had its origins with a published curriculum, Det. Sgt. Matt Nazzaro and Det. Kelly Rieder, the department's school resource officers, have refined and expanded the program, taking ownership of a community-wide effort that only starts with sixth-grade education classes that have replaced the existing D.A.R.E. program.
Nazzaro explains that when James Wozniak took over as police chief in 2014, he reviewed existing programs, including D.A.R.E.: "We wanted to retain the positive and proactive interaction between 'the cops and the kids,' " Nazzaro says. "We had a strong relationship with the Cranford Board of Education and we worked closely with the Board in developing a creative approach that continued our presence in the classroom, working with health teachers to present our message."
Starting with classes geared toward students in the sixth grade, Project A.L.E.R.T. sessions meet twice a week for five weeks to cover topics related to the use of tobacco, drugs and alcohol, focusing on how to deal with internal and external pressures coming from peers and the media (both mainstream and social). Students receive additional instruction in the eighth grade, and the Cranford Police Department and the Cranford High School Student Assistance Counselor developed an original course called High School 101 for incoming freshmen, in which the officers team up with high school counselors to reinforce the lessons learned in the lower grades. And the whole community of approximately 24,000 residents has gotten involved through projects such as a Red Ribbon Week carnival against drug abuse, a townwide barbecue put on by the Cranford Municipal Alliance and other projects to keep reinforcing the message during the summer months.
"All the stakeholders come together to try to complement our efforts. It's not just something that happens in the classroom, it's a philosophy that prevails throughout our township," Nazzaro says.
"One of my favorite parts of the project is a pre-meeting with all the sixth-grade parents to familiarize them with what we'll be talking about. I show them slides of the different drugs and I tell them about an individual we arrested in town who was selling all kinds of marijuana and its derivatives to our youth. Then I tell them he was only 16 years old. I've had parents tell me afterward that they couldn't get that story off their minds, and it helps them realize that although for them underage drinking may have been a rite of passage and they turned out fine, things are a lot different today."
Those differences include a demanding routine of classwork, homework and afterschool activities, generating a pressure-filled schedule that Nazzaro says he couldn't have coped with as a teen: "It's not just peer pressure, it's internal pressure. Kids are so overwhelmed and so tightly wound they say they need a way to decompress and relax. They're growing up faster, they have to deal with social media, and there's an overabundance of substances that weren't available when I was growing up and when their parents were growing up."
The classroom curriculum does not use a lecture format, but rather a variety of activities such as skits and role play that generate involvement between the students and the officers. The published materials target use by teachers, but the Cranford Police Department saw the value in using officers as instructors instead. Both officers work with health teachers, who reinforce the message the next day in class, and homework includes fostering an honest discussion between students and their parents by requiring the children to ask how their parents how they dealt with peer pressure and substance abuse. (The pre-program meeting includes tips for parents on how to handle the questions they’ll face during the discussion.)
One of those parents came up to Nazzaro at a recent Police Athletic League football game to tell him how much his child enjoyed the program. When Nazzaro asked why, the parent told him it's because of the way the curriculum relates to real life, such as asking the students to find examples in their daily use of Twitter, television, Pandora or other media of tobacco-, drug- and alcohol-related advertising.
"Deploying the curriculum in the right way ties it all together. We educate the students and we connect with the community. The students are engaging in a positive relationship with law enforcement, and we hope this will help combat the divide between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and allow them to see us a valuable resource in the community," Nazzaro says. "Time will tell if we're able to cause the paradigm to shift in our town so that our kids make informed decisions about risky behaviors. We're proud of what we've started, and having strong support from the community and the township makes my life easier."
"One of my top priorities when I took over as chief was to implement a school resource officer program. We needed to fill a void that existed between the youth of Cranford and our officers," Wozniak says. "Sgt. Nazzaro and Det. Rieder have bridged that gap, and we have achieved a great amount of success with our SRO program to include a fantastic relationship with teachers and school administrators. This is something we are very proud of."