Before this school year, Soldotna police officer Tobin Brennan would go in to area schools in full uniform and students wouldn’t make eye contact. That all changed with Officer Brennan became Soldotna’s D.A.R.E. teacher. He was tasked with teaching six classes in three different schools. Now when walks through the halls of Redoubt, Soldotna or Kalifornsky Beach elementary schools, he gets fist bumps and high fives.
The Soldotna D.A.R.E. program handed out about 140 diplomas Friday night during a graduation ceremony at Soldotna High School. The 140 fifth-grade students from the three schools met with Officer Brennan once a week for nine weeks in their schools where he taught them the health hazards of tobacco, alcohol, drugs and inhalants.
“The whole goal of the class is to give the students the tools that they need to be able to make healthy, good decisions through life,” he said.“So that’s what we focus on.”
The program is centered around teaching the kids how to work through a particular problem using the D.A.R.E. acronym, Brennan said. There are other D.A.R.E. programs in the area, one sponsored by the Kenai Police Department as well as the Alaska State Troopers. The program is also taught throughout the state and the country.
“So they have to define the problem, come up with their choices good and bad, then they have to pick one of those choices and respond and tell me how they would respond in that situation and evaluate it, whether it was a good or bad decision,” Brennan explained.
Solving a problem can seem simple enough, he said, but when it’s laid out for the students right in front of them, it opens their eyes to what they’re doing.
For their last assignment, the students were required to write an essay about what they had learned during the classes. Brennan and his team of police officers and teachers came up with six essay winners — one from each class — an overall winner from those six. During the graduation ceremony, the six winners were brought up on stage and given a three-foot pencil along with a “Daren” stuffed animal — the program’s mascot.
This year’s overall winner was Haley Buckbee from Redoubt Elementary. Not only did she receive the gigantic pencil and the stuffed animal, but she was awarded a Trek mountain bike donated by the Soldotna Rotary Club.
Buckbee said she was “shocked” when Brennan announced her as the overall winner.
“All my friends said I was going to win,” Buckbee, 11, said. “I’m not a very good writer, so I was shocked.”
Buckbee read her winning essay to the crowd Friday night, which was about 250 people.
“(It was) kind of nerve-racking,” she said. “I have a little bit of stage fright, but it was fun.”
Brennan said the instruction of the class varies, but there are mostly games and scenarios set up for the students to work through.
“They’ll have a scenario where they have kids offering them alcohol,” he said of an example. “And this gives them an opportunity to process through that problem and come up with solutions.”
Buckbee’s favorite part of the class was being able to interact with others while still being able to learn.
“It was fun, we got to do a lot of stuff,” she said. “We got to learn about things we’re going to need in our life.”
Brennan’s instruction struck a cord with Buckbee.
“Drugs aren’t cool and drugs can leave an impact on your life forever,” she said. “And you can never quit sometimes, they’re very addictive.”
For Brennan, graduation is the culmination of nine weeks of hard work the kids put in to the program. He said his goal is to have the message hit home.
“Out of 140 students, if I have one kid that gets it and goes from what would have been a maybe troubled life and this helps them ease that in the future so they can succeed in life — that’s all I can ask for,” Brennan said. “If I can get one kid to do that, that makes me ecstatic.”
After the graduation ceremony, the students had a lock-in at SoHi organized by the SoHi hockey team and booster club.
Logan Tuttle can be reached at email@example.com.