The Norris Elementary School auditorium was filled last Friday with fifth graders wearing white CHAMPS t-shirts, parents and local law enforcement dignitaries for the school's annual Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety graduation.
The program, formerly known as DARE, is taught by the Georgia Sheriffs' Association to students across the state.
McDuffie County Sheriff's Deputy Barry Whitfield, who is the local CHAMPS instructor, said the program promotes healthy activities that are drug-free, non-violent and safe.
"Ten years from now, I want to see you in the courtroom as jurors, not sitting in front of the jury," he said to the 223 graduates.
After a welcome and Pledge of Allegiance to the flag by students Labryson Green, Adrienne Gains and Anna Carrington, brief comments were given by Principal Steve Rhodes and McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall.
"On behalf of the Sheriff's office, I want to congratulate you. Although I sympathize with you for having to put up with Dept. Whitfield for such a long time," the Sheriff quipped.
Keynote speaker District Attorney Dennis Sanders began his speech by revealing that he is more than a prosecutor. He told the students how his wife taught for many years at Norris when it was the middle school, and his sons played ball for the Norris middle school team, and about his little league football teams.
The students gasped and then loudly applauded when Mr. Sanders switched to his radio voice and mimicked his introduction to the weekly Thomson High School football broadcasts on WTHO.
Then the D.A. showed the members of his young audience that he identified with them on their level. He talked about his fifth grade teacher who was "the meanest teacher in the whole world," and even confessed the nicknames he had for her.
"But when she was mean, it was because I was breaking the rules," he said. "She never did get on to me when I followed the rules. It's important to follow the rules."
He explained how the rules for adults are called laws, "and if you don't follow them, then the punishment is not going to be go to your room, it's go to jail.."
"I want to see you on the ball field ... in the Bulldog Brigade ... as fans in the stands. ... I want to see you have a good life," he said. "Don't follow the crowd. ... Be tough enough to stand up and say 'I'm not going to ruin my life. I'm tougher than you.'"
Deputy Whitfield said he called the fifth graders "the big cheese" because they were the oldest at Norris Elementary.
"But next year, you will be the little cheese at the middle school all over again," he said. "And that's when peer pressure will come in."
Deputy Whitfield said the semester-long CHAMPS program teaches many issues such as alcohol, ATV and boating safety, bullying, street drugs, gangs, home alone and child abduction safety, internet safety, peer pressure, stress and tobacco. In order to be eligible for graduation, the students must complete a CHAMPS planner and workbook, have good attendance, write a report, remain drug-free and demonstrate good behavior during class. Deputy Whitfield said the fifth graders had no trouble meeting their requirements.
"It's kind of difficult not to behave when there's a police officer standing in your classroom wearing a taser," he said with a smile.
Each of the students received a diploma and walked across the stage and shook hands with each of the dignitaries and officials, which included: Tommy Crafton and Sgt. Perry Hobbs of the Georgia State Patrol, Special Agent Teddy Jackson of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Mike Sherer, chief of the Georgia Probation office, Sheriff Marshall, Mr. Sanders, Jamie Henney of the Thomson Police Department, Angela Lokey of the State Board of Pardons and Parole, Emanuel Bryson of the State Juvenile Justice Department, Bruce Tanner of the McDuffie County Fire Department and Mark Petersen, the superintendent of McDuffie County Schools.
Essay report winners for each class were also recognized: RaDezha Johnson, Levi Johnson, Ta'Chondria Samuels, Jonathon McGahee, Cedric Norris, Summer Land, Ty'metra Calhoun, Matthew Hooker and Kayla Ochoa.
The CHAMPS Student of the Year was William Johnson.