You would have thought there was a rock star entering when Trooper Caitlin McElhenny came into the lunchroom at West Middle School in Westminster.
"Trooper Cate, are you gonna sit with us?" yelled one boy from a crowded bench.
"I'll be there in a second," said McElhenny, who high-fived another boy. Sixth-graders soon surrounded her, while others begged for her to sit with them.
"I ate one nugget at each table yesterday," she said.
Another girl tugged at her.
"Trooper Caitlin, when are you gonna show us what's on your gun belt?"
"Maybe today," she answered, pausing to say hello to more kids waving from their seats.
McElhenny, 24, a trooper first class assigned to the Westminster barracks, has been teaching at the school for only two weeks. But she's already established a rapport with pupils as part of a new countywide program designed to establish a strong defense against drug, alcohol and tobacco use and the peer pressure behind it.
The program also is intended to change children's perceptions about police officers.
"I thought police were very strict and they don't have any fun," said Nicole Loher, 11. "Now I know they can be fun."
Nicole baked one of the three batches of brownies that McElhenny received last week from her pupils.
The Youth Intervention Program consists of eight officers, each of whom has been assigned a cluster of schools. They teach classes on drug prevention and personal safety and also have a curriculum through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, already taught to the county's sixth-graders. Most of the officers are assigned two high schools and the elementary and high schools that feed into them.
"They share the load," said Anna Bible, the program's coordinator. Before she started her post in July, Bible was a high school mathematics teacher for 15 years. Her husband, Westminster Police Sgt. Mike Bible, is a longtime DARE and community education instructor.
"Kids know who I am and how to relate to me," said Mike Bible, who also gets the rock star reception at schools. "Having officers in the presence of kids [at the schools] sets us apart from the other times police are seen in their house in a crisis situation."
The officers will teach two 30-minute sessions to second-graders, two one-hour assemblies to fourth-graders, DARE classes to sixth-graders and three 90-minute health courses to high school students.
Maryland State Police and Carroll County schools have worked together for 16 years on the DARE program.
Carroll schools security coordinator Larry Faries said that besides teaching a few classes in the program, the officers can handle security and traffic, participate in campus activities, act as mediators for conflicts between pupils and conduct investigations at the schools to which they are assigned.
McElhenny, a first-time instructor, has created a bond with her pupils through the 10-day DARE course. Using role-playing, games, Pixie Stix prizes and a small blue plastic ball named "Jimmy Jammer" as a device to answer questions, she's been able to keep pupils engaged.
"They learn when they're having fun," McElhenny said. "That's when you know it sticks."