In the program, the police department works with the Board of Education to teach a 17-week course to students about the evils of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as other issues such as violence, peer pressure, graffiti, and street gang associations.
In the nine years since it has been part of the fabric of the North Bergen Board of Education and the township's police department, more than 5,000 students have graduated from the 17-week program.
"We try to reach them at an early age," said North Bergen High School guidance counselor John Belluardo, the chairman of the township's Drug Alliance and the supervisor of the Board of Education's START (Student Assistance Resource Team) program. "We have classes for the fifth graders and the eighth graders, because we feel that they're the ones that need to be taught about resisting drugs, alcohol and violence. The program has worked wonders over the years."
Police officer Joe Sitty, who teaches the DARE course along with fellow officer Christine Dall, agreed with Belluardo.
"I've been teaching the program for five years now and you definitely can see the results," Sitty said. "The kids know that the police and the community care a great deal about them and want to see them succeed. And we teach them about more issues than just drugs, alcohol and violence. We're helping with self-esteem and we're building values. Peer pressure is a big thing out there, and [we show] the consequences in getting involved in activities simply because your friends are doing it."
Added Sitty, "We offer the opportunity for the kids to realize that they have someone they can talk to if they have problems. That, as police officers, we care about them."
However, in the past, there was never any event to reward the students for completing the program. They were handed a certificate of merit and told to remember what they learned.
Until this year, when Belluardo convinced township officials to do something special for the graduates of the DARE program.
"We had been planning a special day for a few years, but it never materialized," Belluardo said. "We had some extra funding left over, so we decided to see if we could have something special for the kids this year."
The result was DARE Day 2001, a day of fun and excitement for approximately 750 graduates of the program, who enjoyed the festivities last week at Bruins Stadium in North Hudson Braddock Park.
There were presentations from the New Jersey National Guard, who landed a helicopter on the field and presented its Humvee vehicle on display. There was a monster truck pull display, which was done as a personal favor to Officer Sitty.
There were inflatable rides and amusements for the kids to enjoy. Local recording artist Laurie Michaels and her "Reach-Out" dance ensemble provided entertainment. There were snow cones, cotton candy, and popcorn for the kids, with members of the high school's student council and Key Club organizing the distribution of the goodies. "All of the people who came volunteered their time, because they believe in the program as strongly as I do," Sitty said. "They had a lot of fun doing what they did and I knew that they would respond positively."
Belluardo said that the students were not aware of what was going to take place, so that made the response even more astounding for the youngsters.
"When they came to the field and saw the rides and the helicopter, they were excited," Belluardo said. "And then, they heard the music and entertainment. The kids really enjoyed themselves. It was their day. It was a reward for them. It was something a little different that we offered and it was just a matter of getting it all together. It was a success and hopefully, we can continue it."
Sitty has been a law enforcement officer for 14 years, but nothing compares to the last five years as being a DARE instructor.
"I love it and dedicate a lot of my time to it," said Sitty, who serves as the president of the Hudson County DARE program and sits on the New Jersey state board. "I know that the program works and I'm really involved in it. It's important that the kids know that they have someone they can talk to."
Added Sitty, "I personally believe that one of the things that parents are afraid to talk about with their kids is drugs. Being a law enforcement officer and being a father, I know the importance of being able to talk about it. They need the education, because the kids are our future. The kids really enjoyed themselves. It was a festive atmosphere and they were able to take what they got from the program and had a little fun as well."
North Bergen Police Chief Angelo Busacco applauded the efforts of everyone involved.
"It was an outstanding day," Busacco said. "I commend our DARE officers who do a heck of a job. The day went without a hitch and you could see that the kids enjoyed themselves. The message carries through to their adult lives, that they have to resist the evils. From an administrator's point of view, it was a well-coordinated event from all departments, the Drug Alliance Program, the DARE officers, the Board of Education and the police department. Every department cooperated and complimented each other."