St. Clair Police Officer Bruce Wilken pointed at the 170 or so youngsters sitting before him early Wednesday afternoon, but looked beyond them to the adults in the back of the Edgar Murray School gymnasium.
“I can’t tell you enough, parents,” he said. “This is our future.”
Wilken, who doubles as the St. Clair R-XIII School District D.A.R.E. officer and school resource officer, led the 170 fifth-graders through the annual Drug Abuse Resistance Education graduation ceremony while many parents watched.
D.A.R.E. is a police officer-led series of classroom lessons that teach students how to resist peer pressure and live productive drug- and violence-free lives. The curriculum is designed to be taught by police officers whose training and experience give them the background needed to answer the sophisticated questions often posed by students about drugs and crime.
“Thank you for taking the time to be here,” Wilken told the parents during the ceremony. “You’re in possession of young adults. This is a very mature group. We’ve had some serious talks. ...
“These kids know what’s going on,” Wilken said. “You’d be surprised.”
The D.A.R.E. students all had to write an essay focusing on the program, the dangers of drug, tobacco and alcohol abuse and what they liked and didn’t like about it. Some essays were personal.
One youngster in each of the seven fifth-grade classes received a medal for putting together the best essay. Those students shared their essays with the audience on Wednesday.
The essay winners were Summer Hake, Alyssa Sullivan, Chastity Ries, Alyssa McCormack, Allison Bright, Sophie Viehmann and Grace Simcox.
Near the conclusion of the ceremony, each of the fifth-grade teachers came to the front of the group and through blind draws picked the name of a student in their class. Each one selected won a bicycle. Those winners were Drake Kelley, Mason Woodcock, Zac Brown, Stephanie Bouvier, Owen Roussin, Hannah Licklider and Lilly Williams.
Although that was the portion of the graduation that the students looked forward to most, the message of the day remained serious.
“I asked these young adults what they wanted me to tell you,” Wilken told the parents in the room. “They’re not concerned about not being invited to a party. They’re concerned about moving three or four times in the past year. They’re concerned that a parent has left home. They’re concerned that maybe you don’t have enough money for gas. They’re concerned that maybe a friend of theirs is getting bullied. They’re concerned that maybe they can’t talk to their mom and dad.
“They asked me to share with you that they’re willing to talk to you about what’s going on. But as adults, you need to listen to what they have to say in their own way. They will be open to you if you give them the chance. They will explain how they feel and what they know.”
The veteran police officer didn’t stop there.
“I encourage you over the next day or so to buy a gallon of milk, a box or bag of cookies, put your cellphone away and talk to your child and let them talk to you. They want you to have eye contact with them. They want you to be there. ...
“They just need a little help. But together, we can do it.”