OC Sheriff’s Department’s ‘Above The Influence’ program offers unique approach to substance abuse education for kids

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MISSION VIEJO, Calif. (KABC) — A new way of teaching an important message is spreading across Orange County.

Above the Influence” teaches 5th and 6th graders across Orange County that poor choices early in life can lead to long-term struggles with addiction.

In January 2021, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department introduced a new six-week substance use prevention program called “Above the Influence,” a streamlined, lesson plan focusing more on what substances kids are likely to see instead of a broad-based approach that teaches them everything they might see.

“Kids aren’t going to see psychedelics at a young age. They’re not going to see cocaine or methamphetamine in high school. What we want to do ultimately is increase their perception of harm that drugs do by talking about the ones that they likely will see,” said OCSD Sgt. Brian Gunsolley.

That exposure is more likely to be alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or prescription medication.

“Above the Influence” first tries to connect with students, so it’s more likely they will listen to what is being taught, and the message is direct and based in research because young people don’t always get that clarity away from the classroom.

“They talk about brain research and how the brain is developed fully at 25, so it’s giving the students the knowledge to know that you will have these decisions to make, but let’s wait a little bit longer until 25. So it gives that background of just like the science of being smarter,” explained Alison Brick, a 6th Grade Teacher at Del Cerro Middle School in Mission Viejo.

“It’s not just why they’re bad, there’s many more reasons to when it started, why is it bad, how is it bad and all that stuff,” added Liam Allen, a 6th Grader at Del Cerro.

Milad Ali is also in 6th grade at Del Cerro and adds, “We’re learning the reasons, like why not to smoke cigarettes because it has 7,000 chemicals and some of them can cause cancer. It just doesn’t say, ‘Oh it’s just bad,’ There’s an actual explanation about it.”

This new approach has been so successful, the Orange County Board of Supervisors has set aside $1.3 million to expand the program and impact more students.

“Research shows that a dollar spent on prevention saves over twice as much down the road, so it’s a significant investment that plays out in the long run,” said Gunsolley.

“Above the Influence” has already reached 3,000 students across 37 Orange County schools and other law enforcement agencies have expressed interest in adopting the new curriculum.

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