DARE makes way for Step Up

One of the first things Erica Sperling does when she visits a classroom in Newport Beach is tell the students she doesn't carry a gun.

The crime-prevention specialist is the face of law enforcement for many elementary school students in the city.

She is the author of a Newport-specific curriculum that she has used to teach sixth-graders about making good choices when it comes to drugs, bullying and cybersafety.

But when she first meets the students, the question about whether she's armed inevitably — and quickly — comes up.

She's happy to answer though. It's the start of her relationship with students, she said.

"That's one of my goals, [for kids] to just have positive interaction with law enforcement," she said.

Sperling is the Newport Beach Police Department's replacement for the anti-drug DARE program.

In 2011, Police Chief Jay Johnson decided to cut DARE — Drug Abuse Resistance Education — from the department's budget because it mandated that a sworn police officer present the material in the classroom. That's expensive, Johnson said.

But the department was also happy to comply with then-Mayor Mike Henn's request to keep some kind of uniformed personnel in the classroom, Johnson said.

"The sooner we can start the prevention process and the education process, the better in the long run," he said. "That saves us from having crime problems down the road with these same kids, and it keeps them out of trouble, quite frankly."

That's where Sperling, a civilian employee who carries a badge and wears a uniform, took over.

In spring 2012, Sperling started a pilot program in sixth-grade classes in Newport Beach. From a survey of hundreds of those students, she developed a curriculum she calls Step Up.

It expanded from the drug-prevention message of DARE to include peer pressure, bullying and cyberbullying, smoking, marijuana and synthetic marijuana, alcohol, prescription drug abuse and more, Sperling said.

Step Up made it into classrooms in the fall, and when classes start this spring, a new crop of sixth-graders will be introduced.

By the end, Sperling said, the students have so much knowledge that they can teach the lessons. Every seminar she does ends with a review that involves them acting out skits revealing what they've learned.

One skit in particular impressed Sperling, she said.

The sixth-graders acted out a party where a student declined to drink but held a drink for a friend. In the skit, a photo of the student, holding a beer, ends up online.

"It really showed how you have to stop and think about every little thing and what you're putting online," Sperling said, something she tries hard to impress on the sixth-graders.

When Newport-Mesa Unified School District students return to school next month, Sperling will begin the second year of teaching hundreds of sixth-graders — probably with the gun question.

"It's fantastic," Sperling said. "I love it. I love being with the kids."

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