Local law enforcement enlisting HNHS juniors to help 5th-graders

Huntington County Sheriff Terry Stoffel (standing) shares his vision with Huntington North High School juniors to help fifth-grade students with self-esteem issues, peer pressure and struggles with drugs and alcohol, during an Operation Impact training session on Wednesday, Jan. 17. A school convocation, in which the high-schoolers will kick off the program, will be held today, Monday, Jan. 22, in the high school’s auditorium with the elementary school students.
Huntington County Sheriff Terry Stoffel (standing) shares his vision with Huntington North High School juniors to help fifth-grade students with self-esteem issues, peer pressure and struggles with drugs and alcohol, during an Operation Impact training session on Wednesday, Jan. 17. A school convocation, in which the high-schoolers will kick off the program, will be held today, Monday, Jan. 22, in the high school’s auditorium with the elementary school students.

Originally published Jan. 22, 2018.

Fifth-grade students in Huntington County will soon find some new role models in their corner, giving them inspiration to deal positively with such issues as self-esteem, peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, risky behavior and its consequences during what may be the most impressionable time in their lives.

It’s called Huntington County Operation Impact, the fruition of a vision of Huntington County Sheriff Terry Stoffel in his war against the opioid crisis that has plagued the county and beyond. With the fizzling out of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program that reached out to elementary students with an anti-drug and alcohol message, the sheriff wanted to start something new that would not just take its place, but be effective. Stoffel calls Operation Impact “DARE on steroids.”

“We’re having these town hall meetings, and we’re getting the information out. We’re doing a pretty good job of informing the public about what heroin is, and ‘spice’ as it pops up, and things like that,” he says. “But where we’ve really fallen down, I believe, is getting the message to our youth.”

His idea was to hand-pick junior students from Huntington North High School, train them on how to talk about issues with fifth-graders, then set them loose to become speakers – and role models – infusing the youth with inspiration and the tools necessary to make right choices in dealing with destructive challenges as they bridge the transition from childhood to adolescence.

With statistics that show children as young as age 11 – fifth-graders – begin to engage in risky behaviors, Stoffel says there isn’t enough manpower and influence in local law enforcement to make the kind of impact that volunteer peer students can make.

“Have them talk to the kids, and let them know that, ‘You know, nobody knocks you down and puts drugs in you; it’s always a choice’ and, ‘It usually starts with who you hang around with,’” Stoffel says. “The kids really believe that a lot more coming from them than they do from me.”

The sheriff called Huntington Police Chief Chad Hacker, HNHS Principal Russ Degitz, Huntington County Community School Corporation Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Chad Daugherty and others to see if such a program could be created and implemented in the elementary schools. As soon as he pitched the idea, Stoffel says everyone loved it and got on board to make it happen.

HNHS professional development coordinators Lynn Brown, Deb Daugherty and Cathy Hull combined their talents to create the program the high-schoolers will present to the elementary students, putting it on the Canvas platform. Brown says although the juniors will be considered teaching assistants, the elementary kids will be receptive to having their older peers serve as role models.

“They think that the high school kids are pretty cool, and have an aura about them that the elementary kids want to live up to,” she says. “Taking some of our elite, talented high school kids down to talk to elementary kids, I think will have an impact that having adults talk to them may not have.”

Thirty juniors were tapped for the inaugural group of leaders. They are Spencer Atkinson, Keegan Bartrom, Emma Bickel, Karli Cannici, Danita Clark, Julia Crist, Zach Daugherty, Jessie Ditton, Peyton Dorsett, Amara Eckert, Brette Fawcett, Maddie Fruit, Jessica Henline, Kyler Hoopingarner, Grant Husband, Victoria Keiffer, Clark Kitchen, Alexandria Koch, Kourtney Konz, Macy Niswander, Hank Pulver, Mia Richison, Andrew Smekens, Sawyer Stolz, Amaya Sunderman, Garrett Trout, Erika Vinson, Rylee Williams, Trey Williams and Adam Zahn.

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, the juniors met with law enforcement and school administrators in a workshop at the Horace Mann Education Center to learn the program and get tips on how to get the attention and interact with fifth-grade students, oftentimes a tough crowd.

“We don’t want to tell you just go and do this and say this to your elementary students that are in the fifth grade,” Degitz told the group. “We want you to believe in what we’re doing here – the mission behind it, the vision behind it and the values that we’re instilling … I hope you understand that each one of you is a leader.”

Degitz adds that there is no doubt in his mind that the older students will become heroes to the younger set, and those youngsters will be keeping an eye on their role models’ every move, especially through social media. He told the juniors that they must be a leader and positive role model 24/7 or they risk losing their fifth-graders’ confidence.

“With this (program) you’re going to have influence, and influence is a powerful, powerful, powerful thing. You’re going to have influence over 50 to 60 fifth-grade students,” he exhorted the juniors. “You never know who’s watching. Those fifth-grade eyes might be on you before you even think they might be … just think about those things where you’re making good decisions all the way there and all the way back.”

Junior student Andrew Smekens, who participated in DARE when he was in elementary school, is excited about being chosen to be part of the Operation Impact program.

“I think it’s an honor to us and I think it’s a really good opportunity to be a leader in these kids’ lives,” he says. “My family was like ecstatic when I told them that I was a leader and chosen to do this, because it’s like standing out in the junior crowd, and being able to show that I’m a leader in this 2019 class … I think it’s going to help me be a successful leader.”

Smekens says helping the younger kids overcome the dangers they encounter at that age will also give him great personal satisfaction.
“It will help them later on in life. They’ll always remember this program,” he adds.

Likewise, junior Alexandria Koch, who has volunteered at the Huntington City-Township Public Library, can barely contain her enthusiasm about the opportunity to work with kids.

“The idea that you can make an impact on younger generations really just excites me,” she says. “Just seeing their faces and they recognize you, it’s great. I’m just so excited for it.”

Koch says she doesn’t see the challenge issued to the juniors to be a leader 24/7 to be a problem.

“I’ve always been taught since I was little to make that everything I do is how I want to be seen as a person. I’ve always thought about that and what it would look like to other people,” she says. “I think that’s cool that kids would look into our social media and stuff like that to see if we really are good people, because that just shows the character of the person.”

Operation Impact will officially kick off today, Monday, Jan. 22, with a convocation for the county’s fifth-graders in the HNHS auditorium. There they will meet the 30 junior leaders, who will pair off to visit their classrooms in the coming weeks. A graduation ceremony for the fifth grade students will also convene back at HNHS on March 15.

When this year’s HNHS juniors become seniors next fall, they will then train up the next class of junior leaders to take the program over and teach it to the incoming fifth-graders.

“The seniors, that following year, will go into the middle school after they’ve gotten a year under their belts of teaching the fifth graders, and they’ll teach the sixth and seventh-graders,” Stoffel says. “We’ll keep the rotation going.”

Even before it has started, other school systems around the state are looking at how Operation Impact will work out. Stoffel says he pitched the program to superintendents of northern Indiana school districts in December, and Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) has also expressed interest in the program.

“They can take this program, they can call it whatever they want to, they can take the idea – what they do like or what fits in their county or maybe something they want to interject or add,” Stoffel says. “They can tweak it any way they like, but the concept is still the same: the high school kids are going into the grade school fifth grade level and teaching this program.”

At the moment, costs to put the program together have been minimal. However, Kyle Metzger, executive director of the Huntington County United Way, also attended the training session on Jan. 17 to see if it is something the organization might want to back in the future.