OCSD Deputies Talk with Elementary Students About Substance Abuse

By Annika Bahnsen, Orange County Register
Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Harriman gives an Above the Influence presentation to 6th grade students at Del Cerro
Elementary School in Mission Viejo, CA on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The Above the Influence program, founded by retired Orange County Sgt. Brian Gunsolley, seeks to revolutionize conversations about substance use among students.

Tailored for fifth and sixth graders, the six-week initiative taught by Orange County deputies delves deep into the complexities of substance abuse and the lasting effects it can have on youth. Thirty-seven schools in Orange County, both private and public, are enrolled in the program.

“The primary philosophy of Above the Influence is to provide reliable information about the dangers of substance use to increase the perception of harm and help kids make better decisions growing up,” Gunsolley said. “Above the Influence increases protective factors such as discussing healthy alternatives to substance use and assertiveness training, so kids are better equipped to advocate for their well-being.”

First implemented in 2021, Gunsolley’s curriculum, developed through extensive research and help from local universities, addresses addiction’s roots while informing the students about the dangers of drugs, all with the hope of promoting healthier lives.

The curriculum highlights the main substances that fifth and sixth graders could face or already might come into contact with, such as alcohol, marijuana, nicotine and opioids, in addition to the dangers of fentanyl.

Participating students convene weekly for an hour at a time and learn about a different subject, or “unit,” each week.  For example, one unit, dubbed “assertiveness and refusal skills,” allows students to practice how to confidently refuse when confronted with substances through open discussions and role-playing scenarios. Other units include “addiction,” “tobacco vaping and e-juice” and “marijuana and medication abuse.”

The program has been designed to meet all the California state standards for Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs health curriculum, which is required to be taught to all grades under the state education code.

The program is free for all schools, Gunsolley said, and if schools are interested in the program, an interest form is available on the OC Sheriff’s website.

The deputies who teach Above the Influence are “specially selected for their teaching abilities, kind hearts and a strong desire to protect our youth,” Gunsolley said.

“These deputies are often parents themselves and know how to effectively interact with elementary-aged students,” Gunsolley said. “Before they are allowed to teach, new deputies are paired with a training officer who shows them how to properly facilitate the program and ensures they are delivering it as intended.”

During the 2022-23 school year, the Above the Influence program reached over 30 schools with 3,000 students participating, said Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Jaimee Blashaw. Students who complete the program — or “graduates” as Gunsolley said — receive a certificate from the department once finished with the six weeks.

In addition to creating this program, Gunsolley has been conducting fentanyl awareness assemblies and parent seminars, which Gunsolley said has reached more than 21,000 elementary students and more than 1,200 parents.

For his work creating the program, Gunsolley was awarded the “Kiki Camarena Award” by the Elks Lodge in Orange last month. This award is given to members of the community who exemplify advancements in drug prevention and education. Additionally, Gunsolley will be receiving the “Medal of Merit” at this year’s Orange County Medal of Valor ceremony on April 25 for the Above the Influence program.

Orange County Board Chairperson Don Wagner has been an advocate of the program, and in August 2023, he allocated approximately $1.3 million of funding from his district’s discretionary funds for additional resources and deputies over the next five years.

“I am a big fan of this program,” said Wagner. “It gives us a chance to get some good information to the kids and possibly save some lives.”

Wagner said that he hopes to see the program expand in the future, specifically to have more schools around the county participate.

On Thursday, Feb. 29, Wagner and Gunsolley visited and spoke with fifth and sixth graders at Del Cello Elementary School in Mission Viejo who recently began the program.

Del Cello principal Dawn Lam said that she feels “fortunate to provide this program,” calling it an opportunity to be “proactive and make sure (the students) not only have accurate information, but they are learning it from trusted deputies and real research and or real-life experiences.”

“Our staff believes that we can help prevent and educate prior to their transition to intermediate school, where there may be more exposure and access to drugs or alcohol,” said Lam. “If they leave elementary school with the facts and skills to make good choices, we can decrease the number of teenagers experimenting and/or getting addicted.”

Lam said this program also allows the students to form “positive relationships with our Orange County sheriffs.”

“There is great interaction and participation during the lessons, and they can begin to see the deputies as allies who care deeply about their success and well-being,” said Lam.

More information about the program can be found on the Orange County Sheriff’s website.

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