A lesson in public service

Instruction: A state trooper teaches pupils tips on substance abuse prevention, while changing their perception of the police.

September 27, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

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 only been teaching at the school for 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-abuse 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.

Using teamwork

"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.

Mike Bible, who is assigned to Winters Mill High School and its feeder schools, spent 30 minutes last week teaching safety tips to second-graders at William Winchester Elementary School.

While the 22 youngsters sat on the floor in rapt attention, Bible gave them mantras to remember in dealing with strangers, finding guns and crossing the street.

"Boys and girls, if you ever see a gun in school or in your neighborhood, stop. Don't touch it. Leave the area and tell somebody," said Bible. The pupils repeated the phrases after him.

Other officers in the program include Tfc. Jon Hill, assigned to Liberty and Century high schools; Cpl. Worthy Washington, assigned to Francis Scott Key and North Carroll high schools; and Tfc. Dave Keller, assigned to Westminster and South Carroll high schools. Tfc. Paul Schur works at Mount Airy middle and elementary schools; Sgt. Brian Geiman, like McElhenny, teaches at West Middle; and Officer Steve Curry is at Linton Springs and Piney Ridge elementary schools.

Carroll schools security coordinator Larry Faries said that besides teaching a few classes within 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.

"I've been a one-person operation here for six years," he said. "It's hard to be in more than one place at one time. This is much more of a proactive thing than a reactive thing to have those police officers on site at these schools. You can't put a price tag on it."

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.

Making learning fun

"They learn when they're having fun," McElhenny said. "That's when you know it sticks."

Pupils can't wait to spout off the correct answers about dealing with peer pressure and temptations such as beer and cigarettes. Alecia Mendigorin, 11, said she learned about a new addiction from McElhenny's class.

"I didn't know you could get addicted to inhalants," she said.

McElhenny said her 14 nieces and nephews helped her prepare for the classes.

"You learn what they're listening to and how to relate on a personal level, and that's when they start to pay attention," she said.

"She's cool. The first day she told us that when we finish our exercises, we should `raise the roof,'" said Aaron Miller, 11, who imitated the gesture, pushing his arms up and down, palms up. "I used to think police would break your arms and they were strict, that they'll yell at you a lot. But when I met Trooper Caitlin, that all changed."

McElhenny feels the impact goes both ways.

"I was blessed. This is an awesome group of kids," she said. "I've learned how much they know and what they know is pretty astounding. ... Hearing their responses, they're so intelligent. They're really current. They know the dangers."

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