School was out. But instead of hitting the streets, the fifth-graders at Santiago Elementary School in Santa Ana last week swarmed over Police Officer John Reed, a drug awareness educator. With afternoon sun glinting from his shiny badge and quick, even-toothed smile, he might have been a movie star.
"Officer Reed! Can I have your autograph?" blurted a wiry boy searching for notebook paper.
"You already know my name," an 11-year-old girl told him softly, looking at the ground and swinging her shoulders back and forth.
Reed bent down to look in the eyes of a smaller girl who wanted to know, "What if your best friend wants to fight you and you don't want to fight back?"
Since September, Reed, 44, has become more of a "say no" Pied Piper to elementary students in Santa Ana's pilot Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, also known as DARE. It's not in his job description, but he also laughs at their corny jokes, goes to their graduations and meets with their parents. "I've had kids ask, 'Wouldn't you like to take me home with you?' " Reed said.
18 to Be Honored
Today, the 18-year veteran of the force will be honored along with 17 other human relations activists by the Orange County Human Relations Commission at 5 p.m. at the Garden Grove Community Center, 11300 Stanford Ave. in Garden Grove.
It's the commission's fifth annual banquet to honor "unsung" people who "struggle in the trenches to make Orange County into a really nice place for people of all ethnicities and races to co-exist," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the commission.
Kennedy called Reed "a guy who cares."
"He's the kind of guy who doesn't just punch in at 8 and punch out at 5," Kennedy said. "When the lunch break comes up, he has lunch in the cafeteria with the kids. Then he goes out and they talk to him. They're always coming up telling him problems at home and asking questions."
Orange County fifth-graders are rarely involved with drugs, authorities said. But studies have shown that the fifth grade marks a turning point when children make decisions about their future life styles, Kennedy said. Increasing arrests for drug use and gang-related killings in Santa Ana have concerned both the Santa Ana Police Department and the commission.
"If it goes unchecked, it will get worse and worse," Reed said.
Also a Ventriloquist
To get youngsters' attention, Reed, also a ventriloquist, uses "Grant," a rosy-cheeked, eyebrow-wiggling puppet in saddle shoes, to instill the message.
After a classroom visit, with Grant still on his knee in the teacher's room, Reed switched to Grant's squeaky street-wise voice: "I'm no chicken. I'm no fool. I don't take drugs. They're not cool." A janitor, teachers and staff members stopped by, laughing, to talk with Grant. Grant is learning Spanish, Reed said.
Reed has been visiting schools for a dozen years, starting at first on his own time at the classes of his own children. Later he became an instructor with the Santa Ana Police Department's youth crime prevention and safety program, "Safety Talk." He now spends a full day three days a week at three elementary schools in Santa Ana--Jefferson, Santiago and Edison. "I saw it as a need," he said. "A lot of kids are hurting. They have problems relating to authority. Sometimes they tell you they don't like their stepmother or stepfather.
"The thing that hurts them the most is a perceived lack of love and a perceived lack of interest taken on their part. Some parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol. They're sending the message, 'If you've got a problem, this is how you solve it. Hey, it's not as bad as it's made to sound because I'm doing it.' "
'One of the Best'
The DARE program, which he calls "one of the best drug education programs around," was originated for fifth- and sixth-graders by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District. In Santa Ana, it is sponsored by the school district and Police Department.
The program includes 17 sessions on personal safety, drug use and misuse, resisting pressure to use drugs, building self-esteem, assertiveness, managing stress without drugs, alternatives to gangs, decision making and risk taking, and forming a support system.
The same skills may also avert other problems of teen-agers, such as unwanted pregnancy, Reed said. In an abbreviated program for kindergartners through fourth-graders, Reed lets Grant talk about the dangers of strangers. Seat belt safety is taught with this rap song:
I was riding in the car the other day.
I was so happy to be going away.
I stood in the seat so I could see. And I didn't use the seat belt that was meant for me. We had to stop fast to let an ambulance go. My head hit the window and I hurt my little toe. I can't really tell you how bad it felt. But it never would have happened if I used my seat belt.
The song, written with the help of his own children, was taped and aired over television Channel 9 as a public service announcement, he said.