VILLA PARK – It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday morning and Mr. Hugelier’s fifth-graders are settling in for their weekly D.A.R.E. class.
At the front of the classroom is their teacher, Officer Kevin Conner of the Villa Park Police Department. He’s opened up the “D.A.R.E. Box,” a decorated shoe box the students use to anonymously ask questions or make comments for Conner, and is sifting through scraps of spiral notebook paper.
“Can different types of drugs be combined?” one student asked. Another has asked about the different types of drugs, while a third wonders if Conner has ever needed to use his weapon as a police officer.
Conner is direct and honest. He praises one boy who shares a story about the time he ran away when confronted by older kids who were using a drug. He tells students about a recent incident of cyberbullying at Jefferson Middle School and warns them to be cautious with social media.
After years working the midnight shift, Conner, a 19-year veteran with Villa Park, stepped into the role of D.A.R.E. officer and police liaison for Districts 45 and 48 five years ago.
“Honestly, it was a very good opportunity for me to do something different,” he said. “Since getting into it, I’ve made so many relationships with the schools.”
However, a few years ago, the D.A.R.E. program took heat from critics who argued the traditional program was ineffective. There was a push to remove D.A.R.E. from the curriculum at Villa Park schools, but its supporters persevered and the program remains a staple at District 45’s North and Ardmore schools, along with District 48’s Albright Middle School.
This year, Conner’s using an altered curriculum that still focuses on drugs, but places a much heavier emphasis on decision making, risks and consequences, communications and stress management.
“Officer Conner does an outstanding job of working with students, parents, faculty and teachers and also lets all of these people interact with a police officer in a very positive way and I think that’s really important,” said Janice Rosales, District 45 superintendent.
D.A.R.E. doesn’t work for everyone, Conner admits. But, he said it equips students with the information they need to make informed decisions – and they also get to know a police officer in town.
During his lesson in Anthony Hugelier’s class at North School on May 17, the students talked about bullying.
“It’s all about begin relevant to the kids,” Conner said. “On D.A.R.E. days, I try to spend the whole day at the school.”
And his work as a juvenile officer means that his contact with the schools extends beyond the D.A.R.E. program.
He teaches stranger safety classes to younger children and an Internet safety class to middle school students. He’s worked with school administrators to review school safety plans, and is somewhat of a local celebrity in classrooms, as children from all grade levels call out greetings when he walks down the halls.
“It’s nice because I’ve developed relationships with many of the students through D.A.R.E., which makes my job as a juvenile officer easier,” he said.
Not all schools in other towns still have D.A.R.E., and Conner said he’s appreciative of village leaders and the community for making it possible for him to keep teaching kids.
“I just love it,” he said. “You can have a bad day when you get in front of them and it takes about five minutes for them to turn your day around.”