Does Character Counts steer kids from alcohol and drugs when they get older and help prevent tragedies like the Orinda teen’s death?

Two weeks ago, I was at the Lesher Center, attending one of the three-back-to-back ceremonies hosted by the Walnut Creek Police Department to celebrate local fifth-graders who had graduated its Character Counts program.

It was quite a show, with—lights, sound, action!—a quick skit designed to illustrate the hazards of drug use and dealing, a procession of motorcycle officers, and a huge American flag flying in the background. The kids, including those in my son’s fifth-grade class, were pretty stoked, and all gave big whoops and claps when each of their Character Counts instructors—Walnut Creek police officers—took to the stage to introduce his or her class of successful graduates.

Some readers of this blog questioned whether this was an appropriate way for the police department and city to spend its time and money—especially in these tough budgetary times. Also, these ceremonies occurred later the same day that the department, including the SWAT team, was handling two simultaneous emergencies: a takeover robbery at the Wells Fargo Bank in Rossmoor and a domestic dispute involving a possibly armed, suicidal man. That day my son’s school and several others, including Las Lomas High School, were on lockdown for several hours due to all this “police activity.”

When I arrived at the 4 p.m. graduation, I hadn’t even heard whether the SWAT operation involving the possibly suicidal man had been resolved (It had, I learned at the ceremony; police went into the Creekside Drive apartment where it unfolded, and learned that the man had fled, only to return the next day and be arrested.)

I bring up this question about Character Counts, in light of two recent tragedies involving two young local men. Alcohol, and possible binge drinking, were factors in both tragedies.

The first case has to do with the arrest last week of a 20-year-old Lafayette man in connection with a Cal Poly fraternity hazing death back in December. The second has to do with Saturday night’s death of a Joseph Loudon, a 16-year-old sophomore at Orinda’s Miramonte. Loudon was found collapsed in a home where a large number of high school and college kids were drinking. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead.

As part of the Character Counts program, Walnut Creek police officers go into local public and private school classrooms and use games, songs, and activities to teach “the Six Pillars of Character.” These pillars are “core ethical values”: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. The officer teaches kids these values these through games, songs, and activities. The officer also talks to the kids about the dangers of alcohol and drug use and abuse, and other risky behavior.

One purpose of Character Counts, say its nonprofit founder, the Josephon Institute, is to decrease later crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and misbehavior.

Character Counts involves a strategy that is designed to “improve the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision making and behavior.” The Institute says it has conducted programs for more than “100,000 influential leaders including public officials, school administrators, military and police officers, journalists, senior corporate, and nonprofit executives, and judges and lawyers.” The Walnut Creek school district and police department are among the more than 500 local and regional organizations that have also adopted the program are the Walnut Creek school district and the Walnut Creek police department.

When my son and I left the Character Counts graduation, he said, “that was really cool,” and he thanked me for coming. I remember thinking it was an impressive event. Besides students and their families, also in attendance were Police Chief Joel Bryden, City Manager Gary Pokorny, and at least two city council members, Kish Rajan and Cindy Silva. Clearly, this was an event in which the city takes pride. I also remember thinking that having police officers teach the classes and host the graduation ceremonies served as great community relations for the department–to show themselves as involved and engaged in what’s going on with kids and family in Walnut Creek.

Over this past weekend, I’ve been telling my son a little bit about the Cal Poly hazing death and the local man arrested in connection with that. I also told him about the death of the Orinda boy. My son asked if the Orinda boy was playing a “drinking game.” I told him, no one knows yet; the police are investigating. He says that, in fifth grade, he’s already heard about kids his age, or in middle school who have been smoking, using drugs, drinking.

Today, after talking again briefly about the Orinda boy’s death, I asked my son whether the Character Counts lessons made him think about choices he might make in a few years about using alcohol or drugs. “I guess so,” he said.

I know: It wasn’t a fair question. He very much proclaims his opposition to using alcohol and drugs, but he’s only 11. He might have a different attitude in a few years, and, perhaps like some of his friends, will want to experiment with substances, find out what the big deal is.

So, I don’t know if what he learned in Character Counts will make a difference. I don’t know if this big “dog and pony show,” as one reader termed the graduation, will sink in and affect his behavior and choices or those of other kids in his class in the next few years. We’ll see.

4 thoughts on “Does Character Counts steer kids from alcohol and drugs when they get older and help prevent tragedies like the Orinda teen’s death?

  1. Unfortunately the combination of peer pressure and curiosity will trump good judgment most of the time. Mix in competitive personalities, teenage testosterone and the sense of freedom with no responsible adult to tell you no, then it’s inevitable that tragedies like this will continue. Both of these boys knew better. By all accounts these boys were/are very intelligent, well liked, overall good guys yet one is dead and the other has ruined his life because he was involved in the taking another. We need to continue to educate our kids of the dangers of alcohol abuse, drugs, smoking, etc etc and hope that they heed all the warnings. We didn’t, and sadly and not surprisingly, they probably won’t either. But most will survive, just like we did.


  2. This is a great question. Very debatable. On par with going to church, really.

    There is no empirical data that could be gathered on people this young. Too many other things happen between 12 and 21 that increase the odds of overcomsumption of anything.

    Citizenship? How does that have anything to do with drinking at 11 years old?

    Just give them the Santa Claus treatment, “If you drink, you will die”. They don’t need to see it happen for it to be true, right?


  3. I may not be the popular poster here, but here’s my opinon anyway.
    While my kids did not have the Character Counts program, we did have the Dare program, I’m assuming they are relatively the same, sending the anti-drug, anti-drinking, dealing with bullies sort of message? I do think the program is great, but not always realistic. It’s too black and white for my taste.

    Not all kids, but many kids are going to drink in high school. It’s a right of passage, it’s out there at parties, football games, you name it, it’s there. I did it, my husband did it, our friends did it, our siblings did it,it’s out there. We came from good homes with supportive parents and we were both good students, it’s just out there. I just wish parents would have open conversations about drinking with their kids.

    My parents were very strict about drunk driving, even riding in the car with a person who had ONE beer, we just didn’t do it. I knew I could call my parents and have them pick me up anytime (I did have a curfew) from a party if the person I had been with was drinking and they would normally take that person home too. I was “allowed” to have a beer or two, but never under any circumstances did I drink hard alcohol. My parents did a pretty vivid job explaining about what alcohol poisoning is and what heavy drinking can do to a person.
    While it is definitely a slippery slope, I’m happy that my parents addressed it early and often, not just “say no to drinking”, but instead teaching me about drinking responsibly. I have some horror stories from college about kids who just went completely wild when they had their first beer, etc. I would much rather handle that when I had my kids at home, prior to leaving from college.

    So, yes, I think these programs are good, but I think they are a little over the top and too black and white.


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