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Remembrance of Things Past: Speaker series a student favorite

The intercom blared, “Mr. Welt, you have an important call on line 1!” This happened during homeroom period and my classroom, thankfully, was only a few steps from the nearest phone.

When I picked up the receiver and said, “Welt here,” the voice on the other end of the line said, “Bobby. I’m not going to make it this morning. I’ve got a guy jumping off the bridge!”

The voice on the other end of the line was a Groton Town policeman who was scheduled to speak to a couple of classes that morning. Obviously that was not going to happen.

A lot has been written lately about police presence in the schools. At Fitch Junior High in the 1980s various law enforcement personnel were frequently in the building; not as investigators or to make arrests, but as instructors.

Groton’s youth officers had for some time presented DARE and later GREAT (a gang resistance program) and the students were used to seeing them. When the department expanded its efforts and two new youth officers, John Murphy and Kelly Fogg, were promoted, the ceremony took place during a ninth grade assembly in the Fitch Junior auditorium.

Mike Lewin, the incumbent youth officer, made a speech and the Town Clerk administered the oath of office. The chief of police was present, and the officers’ wives were presented with flowers from the school.

The new youth officers got their own coffee cups to keep in the faculty room. The students’ applause was enthusiastic!

During that era the ninth grade Social Studies curriculum called for half a year of civics with the other half devoted to criminal and civil law. The civics part of the course was pretty straightforward: federal, state and local government. The biggest challenges were explaining to youngsters who had recently moved to Connecticut why counties weren’t much more than lines on a map in this state, and trying to explain Groton’s form of government.

To enliven the law portion of the course, the Social Studies department members, with the blessings of the principal, cooperated in establishing a speaker program. My colleague and friend Bob Allin and I did most of the recruiting of speakers, but all the department members cooperated, realizing that their Friday classes probably wouldn’t meet in their classrooms, but rather in the cafeteria.

Before each speaker started, we distributed 3x5 cards to the kids so they could write down any questions they had. We’d collect the cards, eliminate duplicate and silly questions, and then give them to the speaker when he or she was finished.

Our objective in the program was to introduce the youngsters to various aspects of the law and possible careers. Initially our referrals came from the Groton Police Department. One of our first speakers was a SWAT team member who described his job and displayed his equipment, letting one girl try it all on.

She had a tough time standing up straight!

Since we were a Navy school, the base police department cooperated. They sent an officer with a drug dog, a little beagle, who showed off her ability to find hidden drugs. The handler gave the kids some good advice.

As he pointed out, most of them were 14 and would be getting their license in a couple of years. He told them to be very careful about which of their friends they allowed in the family car. He explained that if dad were stopped on base for a random check, and the dog hit on even a very small amount of pot that someone might have spilled, it would not be good for his career.

He also advised them that if they bought a used car, the department would be happy to run a dog through the vehicle for them before they took it on base.

The Connecticut State Police were happy to send representatives, including one sergeant who had worked undercover with drug dealers. He had some stories to tell! The CSP brought their seat belt demonstration device, the Convincer, and set it up outside the cafeteria. The machine, with a young volunteer strapped in, simulates a crash at 5 mph. It made a believer out of a number of kids.

Robert F. Welt of Mystic is a retired Groton public schools teacher.

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