CRANFORD, NJ – If you were to ask the 3,900 plus students in the Cranford Public School District chances are they would tell you they recognize School Resource Officers, Detective Sergeant Matt Nazzaro and Detective Kelly Rieder.
Nazzaro and Rieder can be found in the districts eight schools on a daily basis engaging the students, educating them, beginning a dialogue and building a lifelong relationship.
School Resource is an outreach program developed by the Cranford Police Department in conjunction with the Cranford Board of Education that began in 2014. The program has many goals, aside from educating the youth in drug and alcohol prevention, it is a foundational piece in developing a positive relationship based on respect between law enforcement and the youth of the township.
Marilyn Birnbaum, Cranford Superintendent of Schools said, “The program is crucial in building a lasting relationship between the students and the police department, the district is lucky to have such a program.”
The flagship program is Project A.L.E.R.T (Adolescent Learning Experience Resistance Training) it is geared to all sixth-graders in the district, as well as St. Michael School. The program meets twice a week for five weeks and covers; drugs, alcohol, smoking, social media, internal and external pressures.
Providing the students with resistance skills and techniques, the goal of the program gives them the ability to not only say no but the skill set to understand why they should say no. This is done through an open and honest dialogue.
“It is so important to give kids a voice, begin the conversation, I want the kids to be honest with me and I will be honest with them, we give them that platform,” said Nazzaro.
The sixth-grade program is followed by a booster program when the students are in the eighth-grade. They re-introduce, review and revisit lessons and role-play.
As part of Project A.L.E.R.T students engage in realistic skits that play-out scenarios; they can range from being offered alcohol, to smoking, to drugs and the internal and external pressures that social media brings.
“The kids are more apt to listen when something comes from a classmate,” said Rieder. “It might be that one thing a kid remembers when they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation.”
The peer pressure social media brings and the need for status is “intense” for today’s generation, says Nazzaro, “If a kid doesn’t get enough likes on a picture, they take it down, they are bombarded with images of their favorite celebrities bragging about drugs and alcohol, perfection, they are plugged in 24/7.”
Kids used to be able to go home and leave the pressure at school, not in today’s digital world, “The pressure is constant, it does not end with the school day, these kids are always plugged in,” said Rieder.
When kids look in the mirror they are thinking; “Do I like the way I look? Maybe I’ll fit in if…We hear “I need to unwind” a lot, kids aren’t drinking for social reasons, they are drinking to decompress because they are stressed,” said Nazzaro.
Nazzaro and Rieder urge parents,” Be the parent to take the phone and put it in a communal spot at night, these kids need a break from it.”
Parents also are involved in an aspect of the program, students are given assignments to bring home and engage the adults in their lives with an open and honest discussion. Nazzaro encourages parents to reach out if there is an issue they are struggling with, “We want the parents to know they are not alone and we are here to support them, we offer guidance and can connect them will resources to help.”
The duo’s passion for what they do is evident in the way they are regarded by the administration, the faculty, parents and most especially those students they are trying to reach.
“Matt and Kelly are part of the school district’s family, the knowledge and sincerity they bring is a breath of fresh air, they are respected and appreciated by both the students and staff,” said Birnbaum.
Their visibility in the schools has changed the “first impression” of the students, “Three years ago we would walk into a school and the kids would ask, ‘What did we do?’ Today they stop shake our hand and say hi, us in the schools is vital in bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community,” said Nazzaro.
Rieder, who is often a guest reader to some of the youngest students hopes she has a lasting impact on them, “I want their first encounter to be a positive one and a familiar face can begin to build that relationship.”
Nazzaro and Rieder draw their motivation from around them, “We have an incredible base of families and residents in Cranford who support what we do,” said Nazzaro. Rieder commented, “Working with kids you have so much potential to make an impact in their lives.”
The scope of the Juvenile Bureau and School Resource goes way beyond Project A.L.E.R.T; Police and Teens Together (P.A.T.T) is a program geared to high-school students that involves open and honest discussions, role reversals that get the students to see the officer’s perspective and vice-versa through motor vehicle stops and other encounters; Cyber Civics deals with internet safety, personal responsibility, address cyber-bullying, permanence of actions; the Captain’s Council is a program for sports leaders; involved in all school drills including fire, bomb scare, evacuation, active shooter and lockdown; Liaisons to the Cranford Municipal Alliance and the Joint Action Committee (JAC) on Underage Substance Abuse.
For more information on the Juvenile Bureau and School Resource visit - http://cranford.com/police/juvenile-pal/