Fair Lawn was a pioneer in Halloween safety in Bergen County, and despite the current manpower shortage in the local police department this fall, borough students aren't missing out on the thorough safety education they are accustomed to getting before the holiday.
Municipal Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) police officers are distributing over 70,000 glow sticks to Bergen County students before Halloween in an annual safety program inspired by the late police officer Mary Ann Collura, who came up with the idea in Fair Lawn in 1999 to make children visible when they go trick-or-treating at night.
Fair Lawn, however, has no D.A.R.E. program this year following the layoffs of four police officers last month, as officers in Community Policing division needed to replace the laid-off patrolmen. In that case, who is distributing glow sticks and giving Halloween safety tips to Fair Lawn's students?
Luckily for the kids, officers Gerard Graziano and Glen Callons–the final two officers left in community policing–won't be switching to patrol duties until Nov. 7, meaning they are available to run the Halloween safety program, said Lt. Derek Bastinck, former supervisor of the community policing division.
Bastinck said Graziano and Callons are visiting kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms leading up to Halloween, giving glow sticks to over 3,000 students and imparting safety tips like staying in groups, wearing reflective tape on costumes for visibility, crossing at the corner and not the middle of the street, and avoiding going into homes or talking. At school assemblies, the kids also receive safety bags with treats and a summary of the safety tips.
"It's a basic public safety type of thing that we do with them," Bastinck said.
With only two officers in community policing–and by Nov. 7 none–as opposed to the seven the department had there before the layoffs, Bastinck said "it is a lot tougher" to educate Fair Lawn's students like the department did in the past.
D.A.R.E.–a shared service between the Fair Lawn School District and the borough–has operated a core sixth-grade program in Fair Lawn for 20 years. A uniformed police officer teaches a weekly 45-minute block of instruction per class for 10 weeks. The lessons focus on building resistance techniques to alcohol, drugs, and violence; considering consequences; resisting pressure; learning ways to say no; understanding effects of the media; accounting for stress; seeking alternatives; resolving conflict; avoiding violence; improving self-esteem; understanding risk-taking; and making decisions.
"All it really takes is one bad decision and that could turn somebody's life down a really bad road," Bastinck said.
Ever since the cancellation of D.A.R.E. this fall, Bastinck said kids have been asking "When are we starting?" while parents, teachers, and prinicipals have called the police department to say they wish the officers could still run the program in classrooms.
"It's really hard for a young kid to understand why this is happening," Bastinck said.
Superintendent Bruce Watson said middle school teachers and principals have also verbalized their concerns about the loss of D.A.R.E. to him, but that he has not received letters from parents on that topic. The temporary solution is that Fair Lawn teachers, particularly physical education teachers, will have to incorporate what D.A.R.E. officers previously taught students into their own curriculum.
"They're going to have to pick up on that," Watson said.
Watson said he understands that approach has its limitations, because only police officers themselves "can share those real stories" when it comes to dealing with drug abuse, alcohol abuse, violence, and other items covered in D.A.R.E. instruction.
"When you have police officers bringing it in, they talk about the real life [experiences]," Watson said. "That has a whole different impact, when you have it."
Besides for the classroom visits leading up to Halloween, members of Fair Lawn Policemen's Benevolent Association Local No. 67 volunteered their time at the River Road Street Fair on Sunday to give children and parents safety tips. PBA members were joined by youths from Fair Lawn Police Explorers Post 902 (the number of Collura's former police car), a police department-sponsored group consisting of participants between the ages of 14 and 21 who volunteer in the community and have police officers as their advisers.
Police officer Michael O'Brien, a former D.A.R.E. instructor, said the police explorer group is "is the only [community policing program] that we still have going strong" since the layoffs. Robert Iozzia, one of the four police officers laid off by Fair Lawn Sept. 1, is still one of the advisers for the police explorer youths, O'Brien said.
PBA members volunteer their time for community projects, now more than ever to help fill the void left by D.A.R.E., because "we have a vested interest in [Fair Lawn]," O'Brien said.
"Our kids go to the same schools everybody else does," O'Brien said.
Since D.A.R.E is a "preventative measure" to make sure young adults don't engage in dangerous activities, right now it is "too soon to know the impact" of the program's cancellation, said Gene Kuffel, a sixth-grade math teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and the president of the Fair Lawn Education Association.
D.A.R.E. was meant to give students a foundation when it came to safe and healthy behavior, Kuffel said, and while it's still possible to "build a house" without that foundation, D.A.R.E. was certainly an important component of well-rounded middle school education in Fair Lawn.
"We want to make sure that education of the whole child takes place, and that includes [the programs of] the community portion of the police department," Kuffel said.
Watson said he is glad the police department can still run the Halloween safety program this year despite the manpower shortage, explaining that "When the public school system calls upon [the police], they're there immediately."
"I want that presence at all times, and they give it to us," he said.
While Fair Lawn police are providing that presence once again this Halloween, their future presence in the borough classrooms for programs like D.A.R.E. remains uncertain.
"Short-term there's a lot of disappointment, long-term who knows?" Bastinck said.