NUTLEY, NJ - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joined officers from the Nutley Police Department and from across the state to discuss the L.E.A.D (Law Enforcement Against Drugs) Program with sixth graders at Washington Elementary School.
Governor Christie will certainly grab headlines today, but this program was not about him. There were no tele-prompters, no prepared speeches, not even a session with the media. The governor joined a class of sixth graders who were in the middle of a regular L.E.A.D. class session. In the class, the students were given opportunities to learn about combating the Garden State's substance abuse problem.
Commissioner of Education Kimberly Harrington addressed the classroom early on. "Your voices are needed to tell what's going on in the schools." she said. Harrington pointed out the class president and vice president. She told the class how they used their voices creatively to get their message out to reach their positions in the class. Both officers learned how to take a stand for something they believed in.
Harrington then told the class to "Use your voices to help yourself and others." The idea of speaking up help and serve others was repeated throughout the hour.
Nutley police officer Steve Rogers spoke about some of the types of street drugs that are causing problems in the state. The theme of "stop, think, and consider the risk of taking drugs." was repeated over the course of the program.
Rogers selected students to play the roles of "Detective Mac," a narrator, and a Witness to apply some of what they were learning in the L.E.A.D program to possible real life situations. In each case the narrator would set up a scenario for Detective Mac and the witness. The witness would report the behavior of someone they encountered.
The role playing was designed to get students to recognize some of the symptoms of substance abuse and speak up about them.The co-detectives (students in the class) were called upon to apply their knowledge to match the symptoms of the drug user.
The L.E.A.D program is a far cry from the "Just Say No" programs of decades past. Officers in the program realize that substance abuse is a disease and the victims need help. By getting up before a classroom filled with peers, school leaders, and strangers from the media, these kids are developing public speaking skills that one day may give them the courage to speak out and save a person's life.
Nutley Police Officer Padillo spoke shortly after the role play excercise. "It takes a village to raise children" he stated in reference to police and schools coming together for the children of Nutley. "While the world is out there looking for leaders, here in Nutley we are making them"
Governor Christie joined the program shortly after Padillo spoke to the class.
Speaking directly to the sixth graders, in a tone that one might associate with a favorite uncle, he said "the people who are going to stop it are you" The governor stressed that the most important people in the room are "you" (meaning the students.)
Christie explained that four out of five heroin users started with prescription drugs. People feel that if it is legal (meaning prescription drugs) it must be okay. "It is not if you don't use them properly" he added. "Never take medication without talking to your parents first."
In a question and answer session, the students asked some tough and enlightening questions. Most of the governors answers went back to the theme of substance abuse being a disease that requires treatment.
He explained that when he was in school "we never talked about drugs, it was a dirty secret" he said. "We were not supposed to talk about it. I wish we had it (L.E.A.D) in the sixth grade but we didn't."
The governor's message stressed that drug users have a disease. He told the students "we don't say 'you should not have gotten sick with a cold' (to a friend), we tell them you need to get help." Christie told the students that "they (drug users) are not necessarily bad people, we need to get them help."
"When you are helping a friend in trouble, you are not getting them in trouble, you are getting them out of trouble." Christie knows that this may be hard for some kids, so he added "anything that is worth doing is hard."
This was not a one-shot political appearance. The L.E.A.D program is firmly entrenched in Nutley Public Schools and in nine of the state's counties. In response to one of the students, the governor explained he hopes to expand the program to more grades in the public schools.