On May 31, almost 600 fifth graders from North Bergen celebrated their LEAD (Law Enforcement Against Drugs) graduations. The program provides education from law enforcement officers aiming to reduce children’s involvement in drugs, violence, and other threats.
The program’s 10 lessons spanned more than 22 weeks. Overseen by retired North Bergen Police Officer Joe Sitty, the program is in its fifth year in North Bergen’s school district.
Sitty, who served as the host to the graduation, has been at the helm of the LEAD program since its inception five years ago. For over a decade, he was in charge of the district’s DARE program. He was named New Jersey’s DARE Officer of the Year in 2004.
Sitty said that the LEAD program provides an evidence-based approach that covers a wide range of topics.
Pot and peer pressure
“LEAD is a more comprehensive program than DARE,” Sitty said. “While we provide all the same curriculum as DARE, LEAD incorporates much more. DARE addressed plenty of issues with alcohol and other drugs, but didn’t address any realities behind marijuana. LEAD consists of topics, including goal setting, decision making, handling emotions, and peer pressure.”
Fairview native Lori Michaels, a celebrity ambassador for LEAD’s New Jersey Charter, performed “Reach Out Together,” which she wrote and produced. It is now the official anthem of the LEAD program. Michaels was joined by dancers Olivia Hutcherson, a former NFL cheerleader who has performed with prominent music acts, and North Bergen High School’s Celeste Maneiro.
Michaels’s nonprofit, Reach Out, Inc. promotes awareness of the perils of substance abuse, crime, violence, prejudice, and other social ills. She founded the group in 1989, at age 16. She also runs Peak Performing Arts Center, which serves as a dance, music, and fitness hub in Ridgefield.
Truth or DARE?
DARE was the be-all-and-end-all in anti-drug education for New Jersey’s school districts until 2015. That year, DARE’s national leaders changed their curriculum from “Too Good for Drugs,” to another program called “Keepin’ it Real,” which focused on adapting to various cultures.
According to a Penn State University study, middle schoolers in the “Keepin’ it Real” program saw worse results when it came to substance abuse over a 30-day period than they had under the former DARE curriculum.
When DARE’s New Jersey Charter claimed that the new curriculum was untested and unproven for elementary school students, DARE America threatened to revoke the state charter’s title. A legal battle ensued over whether New Jersey’s law enforcement officers would be allowed to work under the name DARE.
That’s when LEAD, run by local police chiefs and school superintendents, stepped in. The new program used the same “Too Good For Drugs” curriculum, along with new material, including training officers wot deal with drug users and people with addictions.