Alex Mendoza was paying for his haircut at Irvine Spectrum Center when a cashier noticed young kids jumping up and down outside trying to get Mendoza’s attention.
Mendoza, an Irvine police officer, didn’t flinch. As a matter of fact, it happens everywhere he goes in the city.
“To these kids, you are a rock star,” Mendoza says.
He’s one of four Irvine police officers dedicated to teaching students to make better choices through the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which is an example of Irvine’s commitment to safety and education.
Irvine is the only city in Orange County that offers D.A.R.E. curriculum at all of its elementary schools. The safest city in America has funded D.A.R.E. for fifth and sixth graders almost since the program’s inception in the 1980s.
“It’s been ingrained into the school system here,” Mendoza says. “Irvine has always been focused on creating those positive connections.”
The D.A.R.E. program has evolved over time and is now much more than saying no to drugs. D.A.R.E. officers, who go through 80 hours of training, bring their own strengths to the curriculum, which is taught once a week.
Mendoza focuses on teaching students how to become a better person through qualities such as empathy and gratitude. Much of his classes are spent discussing topics like how to handle peer pressure and prevent bullying.
He often shares his own emotional struggles and vulnerabilities to get his point across.
“It’s about allowing them to see you as a human being, someone who has also made mistakes and learned from those mistakes,” Mendoza says. “If they don’t know who they are or if they don’t know how to handle their emotions, they are going to go to an external substance to fill that void.”
Once, a sixth grader in his class stood up and confessed she had been a bully. The girl broke into tears.
“Think about the amount of courage she had to have to say that in front 30 students,” Mendoza says. “It was a transformational moment.”
Lifting up students
Mendoza says being a D.A.R.E. officer has been the most fulfilling position he’s had in his 27 years as a police officer. He even volunteered to return to D.A.R.E. after his patrol assignment.
“It’s because of the connections that you build with students and the fact that they get to see a police officer in a different light,” he says. “It has helped build lasting relationships with the community. It humanizes a police officer.”
Each D.A.R.E. officer in Irvine gets to work with about 250 students a year. Mendoza is greeted by so many wherever he goes, many of whom thank him for influencing their lives.
Mendoza says many crimes happen because people have difficulty coping with their feelings, such as fear, anger and hate.
“When I’m in the classroom, I can help 30 kids understand their emotions,” he said. “If they can handle emotion, that’s one less call we have to respond to.”