Officer Nate Spiker of Grove City Police has a pizza party with a group of seventh graders on Feb. 5 to celebrate their participation in the D.A.R.E. program as peer leaders. The students are (front) Daisy Ritenour, 12; (second row) Shanchi Dholu, 13; Jordyn Wyllie, 12; Belle Chiodo, 12; Caroline Coulter, 13; Anna DiBello, 12; Mikayla Wimer; (back) Chris Adams, 13; Zack Reddick, 13; Ryan Guarnieri, 13; and Cole Latimer, 12. (Felicia A. Petro/Allied News)

By Felicia A. Petro

Allied News Staff Writer

A Grove City policeman is taking D.A.R.E. to a new level.

Officer Nathan Spiker, 28, began leading the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program for Grove City schools, replacing long-time D.A.R.E. leader, Officer Mark Jaskowak, this year.

“He’s made it pretty easy for me to step in and take over,” Spiker said.

“Mark was an awesome teacher and the kids are disappointed he’s not going to be there. They loved him.”

However, the new leader has brought some fresh ideas to the D.A.R.E. program that students are excited about this year as well.

Spiker has chosen a group of 12 seventh graders to be peer leaders at Grove City Middle School for a new program called “Keeping it Real.”

“The emphasis is really on teenagers telling other teenagers about drugs, peer pressure and making good decisions,” Spiker said.

“Before it was police officers and teachers telling kids what they could and could not do. It’s a new thing to get kids and parents involved.”

D.A.R.E. also reaches out to kindergarten, first, third and sixth grades. Talk about resisting drugs begins in third grade. D.A.R.E. runs from January to April, with Spiker teaching workshops in each grade level at different times.

The seventh graders went through a D.A.R.E. workbook with Spiker every day for two weeks last month. Spiker taught ten, seventh grade classes daily during that time, a total of 70 classes for the two weeks, he noted.

The 12 peer group members were chosen based on how well they did during the study. “They exhibited gifts to be leaders,” Spiker said.

For Jordyn Wyllie, 12, being a peer leader was a way for her to be a “role model” to her younger classmates, she said. “I think that alone will help me stay away (from drugs) because I wouldn’t want to not be a role model,” she added.

“I think it’s really fun to learn the D.A.R.E. program and be better students when we grow up,” said Caroline Coulter, 13, who was also chosen as a leader.

Spiker got the idea from Grove City Area High School’s similar program, called Project Peers.

At the middle school level, “There’s no extra responsibility, but we wanted to publicize them as doing good in the program and (for their friends to say), ‘If I’m in trouble, these kids will help me out,’” Spiker said.

He believed the peer group is also a way for kids to get more involved in D.A.R.E. and “get more confidence in themselves,” he said.

“If the junior-high age is reassured they are doing a good job, it will take off with that,” Spiker said. “The peer leaders are out there as people in class that (other kids) can go to for help.”

D.A.R.E. research indicates that kids ages 12 to 15 are getting addicted to prescription pills, like muscle relaxers and pain medication, Spiker said. “Kids view medicine as safe.“

Grove City officers haven’t seen prescription drug activity at the middle school, but they have seen it by that age group in the community, he noted.

“They find it on the streets from drug dealers, other kids or their parent’s medicine cabinet. It’s a fad right now. Abuse is even a problem in Grove City,” Spiker said.

Spiker has seen kids as young as 13 taking prescription medication to get high.

The peer leaders knew of students who smoked at the middle school, but didn’t know of drug use. Each of them excels in academics, but they don’t think that will get in the way of relating to kids who may be confronted with substance abuse.

“Everyone knows each other. We’re all a great, big group of friends,” Caroline said. “There is a social status, but you can mingle,” said Jordyn.

“There are no bullies. I think we’re all friendly,” added 12-year-old Cole Latimer.

There are three types of children in Grove City, Spiker noted.

On one end of the spectrum are the “stable kids,” who are raised in safe homes and “don’t intend to use drugs,” he said. “It’s the group that the D.A.R.E. program may not benefit.”

The other extreme includes children raised in domestic violence and drug use, “and it’s easier for them to experiment and become addicted,” Spiker said.

“A larger, middle group is sitting on the fence a little bit,” he noted. They may think substance use is “cool” or succumb to “peer pressure,” he added. “They can be swayed one direction or another.”

D.A.R.E. wants to sway those kids in the right direction by making them “aware of how (drugs) affect their families and their bodies,” Spiker said.

Right now, Spiker is working with the third and sixth graders. He will be with the sixth graders for 10 weeks; the third graders, five weeks, both for lesser amounts during the week than the seventh grade class.

In March, he will begin working with kindergarten and first grade. “I only see kindergarten once and the first grade four times,” Spiker said.

The kindergarteners “get to meet a police officer, and we do a short thing on safety and crossing the street,” he said. “First grade is more about safety habits, being social with peers and ‘stranger danger.’”

The sixth and seventh graders also learn about different drugs, but in seventh “the real emphasis is kids teaching kids their experiences,” he said.

During the two weeks last month, Spiker showed a DVD of middle-school kids talking about how “they said ‘no’ and resisted drugs,” he said.

“Kids are asked but they don’t know how to say ‘no.’ When adults tell them how, it’s not as successful, but when kids do, it does have more success.”

As a peer leader, Cole Latimer would tell his peers that drugs “would ruin their lives,” he stated.

This kind of involvement with the middle school youths is exciting to parents as well.

“I’ve had a lot of parents who have contacted me,” Spiker said.

One of his goals was to get middle schoolers to initiate conversation with their parents about drug use or tobacco use at school.

“It should be (the other way around), but parents don’t think their kids are doing it,” he said.

Spiker also wants to further “build a relationship with students and the police department,” he added.

“I can tell you with the third graders, that the kids were shaking and trembling (when they saw) my gun and uniform, but the more I went there, they’re giving me hugs and can’t wait to see me again. To develop that is important.”

Spiker is a Grove City boy who graduated from the district.

“I was faced with all the same temptations,” he said.

“I found kids are excited about my personality in that sense and to say I had some of the same teachers.”

The program hasn’t come without criticism.

Grove City Borough Council has considered dropping D.A.R.E. funds from its budget. The school district also contributes to the program.

Caroline Coulter’s father, councilman Mike Coulter, is one of those critics.

However, “I think this program is better this year,” Caroline said.

“The criticism is that D.A.R.E. is an ineffective program and doesn’t help, but you can’t put statistics on it,” added Spiker, who is also a cousin to the Coulters.

“In conversations with family and how kids relate to us, just one time in class you can see the kids are changed by it.”

Published Feb. 6, 2010 in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201A Erie St., Grove City.

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