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Anti-drug programs ramp up in New Kensington-Arnold schools

Emily Balser
| Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, 1:57 p.m.
Sixth-graders Jessica Staraniec and Shelby Seybert listen as a father talks about his son dying from a heroin overdose, during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold, on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Sixth-graders Jessica Staraniec and Shelby Seybert listen as a father talks about his son dying from a heroin overdose, during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold, on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Sixth-grader Ryan Smith, left, waits to ask a question about drugs during a drug-education program at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold last month. (Trib photo)
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Sixth-grader Ryan Smith, left, waits to ask a question about drugs during a drug-education program at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold last month. (Trib photo)
Fifth-grade students raise their hands, acknowledging they learned something new, during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Fifth-grade students raise their hands, acknowledging they learned something new, during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Fifth-grader Eli Semprvivo asks questions related to the dangers of regular marijuana compared with medical marijuana, during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold, on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Fifth-grader Eli Semprvivo asks questions related to the dangers of regular marijuana compared with medical marijuana, during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold, on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
District Judge J. Gary DeComo (left) conducts a mock arraignment with sixth-graders Evan Kuba, Shelby Seybert and Jessica Staraniec during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
District Judge J. Gary DeComo (left) conducts a mock arraignment with sixth-graders Evan Kuba, Shelby Seybert and Jessica Staraniec during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
District Judge J. Gary DeComo, left, and District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr. speak to a group of students about the risk of using drugs and alcohol during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold last month. (Trib photo)
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
District Judge J. Gary DeComo, left, and District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr. speak to a group of students about the risk of using drugs and alcohol during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold last month. (Trib photo)
District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr. speaks to a room full of elementary students about the real risks of drug use during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold, on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. The program included interviews with former addicts, people involved in drunk driving accidents, families who lost members due to overdoses, and doctors, about the risks of using tobacco, alcohol and narcotics.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr. speaks to a room full of elementary students about the real risks of drug use during the Drugs Kill Dreams event at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold, on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. The program included interviews with former addicts, people involved in drunk driving accidents, families who lost members due to overdoses, and doctors, about the risks of using tobacco, alcohol and narcotics.

“Drugs kill dreams!”

That's what hundreds of students chanted Friday morning at Roy A. Hunt Elementary School in Arnold.

It's a message District Judge J. Gary DeComo has been giving to the children of Western Pennsylvania for nearly 20 years in the hope of saving lives and preventing kids from using drugs and alcohol.

DeComo uses the program to present students with real-life stories of addiction and its repercussions.

“I've talked to over 100,000 kids over the years,” DeComo said. “I first witnessed juvenile addiction my first year in office.”

Fifth- and sixth-grade students packed the gymnasium Friday to hear DeComo share his stories as well as District Judge Frank J. Pallone Jr., who partnered with DeComo to bring the program to the school.

Students got to hear the stories of local recovering addicts, parents of overdose victims and the types of addiction from tobacco to alcohol to marijuana to drugs like heroin.

DeComo even had students participate in a mock arraignment so they could learn about what happens if you are arrested for drugs.

Sixth-grader Jessica Staraniec, 11, said she learned a lot about how drugs can kill you.

“I'm never going to do drugs,” she said.

Sixth-grader Evan Kuba, 11, said he wants to be a police officer when he grows up and was surprised to hear about all of the dangers of drugs.

“I think it was kind of disturbing,” he said.

The event was also a kick-off to the district restarting the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program for its fourth-grade students.

“It's been six years since we've been in the schools with DARE,” Arnold police Chief Eric Doutt said.

DARE will be a 10-week program in which students meet with police officers to learn about drug and alcohol prevention, but Doutt said it goes beyond the materials.

“The main thing is the relationships we build,” he said.

The program has undergone a face-lift in the past few years after research showed the program wasn't effective in preventing drug use and, in some cases, actually made kids more curious about drugs.

Doutt said that doesn't seem to be the case for New Kensington-Arnold School District. He said the program was “very effective” in the district.

He said he has been able to build relationships with students who still come up to him today and talk about the impact DARE had on them.

Richard Mahan, director of communications with DARE America, said DARE used to be a lecture-driven program, but today's curriculum is more interactive and involves role-playing.

“It's a whole new curricula,” Mahan said. “We didn't just put nice lipstick on it.”

He said DARE introduced a new program in 2008 for middle schools and introduced the companion version for elementary schools called “keepin' it REAL” in 2013. The curriculum was developed by Penn State University and Arizona State University.

Tim Phillips, director of the Westmoreland County Overdose Taskforce, said programs like Operation Prevention through the FBI and federal Drug Enforcement Agency have been more effective because they are integrated into the curriculum and aren't just a one-time prevention method.

“It's never too early,” Phillips said. “Early and often is probably the most effective, research shows.”

Phillips said it's also important to make sure the information and program presented is relevant to today's youth.

“We want to use our resources as most effectively as we can,” he said. “We don't want to give them a program from 10 years ago.”

DeComo said he would like to see the “Drugs Kill Dreams” slogan go beyond this region to prevent drug-and-alcohol abuse nationwide.

“I'm trying to get a state or federal agency to adopt the slogan,” he said. “It would be the greatest thing in our country when we need it most.”

Staff writer Madasyn Czebiniak contributed to this report. Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680, emilybalser@tribweb.com or on Twitter @emilybalser.

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