Gina Mace

CUYAHOGA FALLS: A citywide collaboration was launched Wednesday at DeWitt Elementary that will use education and rewards to discourage kids from using drugs.

Mayor Don Walters said the program — “Not me. I’m drug free!” — is the result of a partnership between the city, school districts, Summa Western Reserve Hospital and local businesses.

The program aimed at fifth-graders includes education and rewards or “free-wards” as they’re called in the program as positive reinforcement for the promise to remain drug-free.

Area businesses have agreed to give out freebies to children who present a punch card on which they’ve signed a pledge to stay away from drugs.

It’s about getting children at an early age and changing the culture, Walters said.

“Fifth-graders are the best place to start,” the mayor said. “They’re like sponges; they absorb everything. They listen, they’re interested and they are still innocent.”

Dr. Robert Kent agrees.

“You can effect change and impression at this age group and below more than you can above,” he said.

Kent, whose area of concern is wellness, said this program can have a great impact on the community.

Walters said just about everyone knows someone or has had a family member affected by the use of methamphetamine or heroin.

Falls Fire Chief Paul Moledor said his department has answered overdose calls nearly 130 times in the past three years, treating people who ingested heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.

“As the attorney general said, this is an epidemic,” Walters said. “It’s almost acceptable. Opiates and meth are highly addictive drugs. A lot of our crime is tied to this. A lot of our health-care costs are tied to this. It affects people even if they don’t realize it.”

Walters said Falls students are no longer enrolled in the nationwide D.A.R.E. anti-drug program.

“I talked to Chief Davis and discovered there’s no [drug] education at all,” he said.

Walters took to the Internet to find out what other communities were doing. and he talked to Dr. Kent, who was more than willing to get involved.

Western Reserve Hospital is also lending its marketing expertise, as well as buying collateral material, including punch cards, T-shirts and yard signs. The hospital also will maintain a “Not me. I’m drug free!” Facebook page.

On Wednesday, Moledor, Police Chief Jack Davis, Falls Schools Superintendent Todd Nichols and Woodridge Superintendent Walter Davis were on hand to talk to the children and parents assembled at DeWitt.

“Marketing will help the city move this forward,” Kent said. “At this age, imagery about what can happen with drugs and how you look at drugs, and Facebook images of how people look when they overdose on drugs” are powerful.

“We want to teach them what they’re up against, what their neighbors or older brothers or sisters are doing,” Walters said.

There will be different events throughout the city. Rockin’ on the River, the Falls Friday night summer concert series, will promote the program and distribute information.

Walters thinks it’s important to be proactive and to have a deterrent, such as prosecution, for behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated and encourage good behavior.

“We can’t do nothing and deny the problem exists,” Walters said. “We can’t arrest our way out of it, so to me, it’s education. If you have a [drug] problem, come to us right now and we’ll get you placed, we’ll get you where you need to be. If you don’t come to us, we’re coming to get you.”