Model Programs/Best Practices

STARS Addresses the Concerns of Today

Location: Massachusetts By Becky Lewis Published March 2015

For millennia, there have been stars in the sky.

For more than a hundred years, there have been stars in Hollywood.

And for several months, there have been “STARS” in Sudbury, Mass.

The result of a partnership between the Sudbury Police Department and Sudbury Public Schools, Students Thinking and Acting Responsibly in Sudbury (STARS) teaches fifth-graders to tackle decision making and addresses issues such as cyberbullying, digital safety, navigating the Web and using smart phones. School Resource Officer Alan Hutchinson and Wellness Curriculum Specialist Elizabeth Gams worked together to create the details of the STARS curriculum, which replaces the DARE program in the fifth-grade learning plan.

Sudbury Chief Scott Nix says he made helping the community’s youth a personal priority when he became chief of the 28-officer force in 2013, and when the department’s long-time DARE officer retired at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, it seemed like a good opportunity to transition “to a program that is more indicative of the concerns of today.”

“STARS encompasses the aspects of positive decision-making contained within the DARE curriculum while adding, enhancing and updating the lessons for today’s issues. The department and the school worked together to create an up-to-date curriculum tailored to our community’s needs,” Nix says.

“At the same time, we had an opportunity to assign a school resource officer to circulate among the four elementary schools and the middle school for the first time, further strengthening a positive relationship between the schools and our department.”

Hutchinson, better known to the students as “Officer Al,” started his duties in the schools in September 2014, and began assisting with teaching the STARS curriculum in January 2015.

“The partnership between the police department and the schools is an extremely important reflection of what we value. We have enhanced safety as a whole in the broadest of terms,” says Sudbury Superintendent Dr. Anne Wilson of the program, which wrapped up its first session in March.

“I had a general vision of where we wanted to go, but I didn’t want to adversely impact the ever-increasing mandates on our teachers. There is a lot of curriculum that can be more powerful when taught by police officers,” Nix says.

In contrast to DARE, STARS focuses more on cybersafety, including smartphone use, sexting and the dangers that can be encountered on the Internet. The program also uses real-life examples for emphasis.

“There is so much more now that students have to deal with compared to when DARE was conceived. STARS adds more about media messages and advertising, especially social media. It includes more up-to-date refusal skills and information on bullying prevention,” says Wilson. “While DARE had self-advocacy and did some good instruction around drugs and alcohol and smoking, there’s just more now that we need to be explicit about, not only messages in the media but things that students communicate to each other. We also wanted to create a connection that follows the students through their school years.”

That’s exactly the kind of ongoing connection that Hutchinson is working to build by coming to games, attending concerts and in general circulating around the school buildings during class time.

“He’s connected to each staff member and to each school. He’s really become part of each of our school communities and he has been able to forge relationships so that students realize they have another adult they can go to and they see the broader community supports them,” Wilson says. “It was the absolute right thing to do and we’re thrilled to have him.”

And Nix also has received nothing but positive feedback about the program from the community of 18,000 residents: “The feedback has been tremendous. I live in the community, and when I met with the PTO last week, everything I heard was positive. If we can use the STARS class to develop positive relationships that reinforce sound decision-making, that will be incredible.”