AVON PARK — “Come on now, we are not in school,” Lake Placid Middle School School Resource Officer Andy Spires exhorted, and a roar rose from the crowd.
When more than 1,000 fifth-graders and their teachers are asked to scream, they do - with great gusto - and Spires could not have been disappointed.
The mood Tuesday at the South Florida State College Theatre for the Performing Arts was festive as fifth-graders from almost all of Highlands County’s schools packed the auditorium and let out their best cheers, screams and dance moves.
But the message was serious - stay away from drugs and alcohol - which is drilled into every fifth-grader as he or she gets ready for middle school and the world beyond.
The 10-week Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or D.A.R.E., culminated with its annual celebration Tuesday - where the anti-drug message was reinforced through skits and songs.
The California Toe Jam band performed several rock ‘n roll oldies that got the crowd going. Local singers Cammie Lester and Nala Price gave rousing performances, while the Avon Park Diamond Steppers did some intricate step dancing that drew applause from the crowd.
Just like in the past, students got a chance to shout out for their school resource officers, and Fred Wild Elementary students who came late got a chance to do two shout-outs, the second one egged on by School Resource officer Shannon Purvis.
One of the popular parts of the event is a skit about a simulated drug deal gone bad as sheriff’s deputies, with a K-9 dog in tow, burst in and bring the bad guys down.
A big applause broke out as lights flashed and the Inner Circle song, “Bad Boys” blared on as surprised students cheered and clapped.
Older D.A.R.E. role models, high school juniors and seniors such as Abigail Samperi, who have accumulated an active roster of extra-curricular activities and have plans to go to college, also appealed to their younger peers to “be smart and do the right thing.”
While the event highlighted the dangers of smoking, drinking and doing drugs, the kids were also reminded that bullying is bad.
“You don’t need to smoke, you don’t need to drink and you don’t need to bully just to fit in,” the students were told.
They also learned that abuse is both physical and emotional and if a friend is being abused, a parent or a teacher needs to know, even though the friend may get mad.
For Memorial Elementary fifth-grade teacher Katherine Sands, who got into the dancing mood with great flair, D.A.R.E. stands for a “life where you don’t have to be afraid to say no.”
She hoped the message her students went home with was the importance of being proactive about their future.
Sheriff Susan Benton, who brought the national program to Highlands County about 20 years ago, described the D.A.R.E. celebration as “one of the most exciting days of the year, primarily because we see a 1,000 young people so full of enthusiasm about their life and future.”
“This co-relates into a good future for Highlands County,” she added.
D.A.R.E.’s message registered with at least two kids.
Ariel Jackson said she has learned not to do drugs while Brook Carpenter said some drugs can cause cancer and, that drugs in general are “not good for you.”
Founded in 1983 in Los Angeles, the program is now being implemented in 75 percent of the country’s school districts and in more than 43 countries around the world.