Weapons display at Sparta DARE Day creates stir

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    SPARTA—There were face paintings and balloons, field games and pizza. Batman drove up in his Batmobile. Everything seemed picture-perfect — until a photograph from DARE Day appeared in the local newspaper. The color photo showed several students atop a U.S. Army Humvee equipped with a 50-caliber machine gun, one of several military displays brought to the park as part of Sparta's DARE Day festivities. The display of weapons created a controversy that now threatens the continuation of DARE Day. Sparta officials plan this summer to re-evaluate the day's activities before staging another event next year. "I don't think we're going to eliminate DARE Day," said Michael Gregory, principal at the Mohawk Ave. fifthngrade school. "There are some concerns about kids and weapons being introduced at the events. Maybe it's time we look at things and do them differently than in the past." The issue surfaced when several township residents wrote letters to the editor of The Sparta Independent objecting to the use of the photograph on the front page of the May 25 edition. "Today, in other parts of our world, men will die while sitting on Humvees," wrote Sparta resident Mary DeMeulenaere. "A photo of students enjoying themselves sitting upon one does not seem consistent with a message of anti-violence." Jeanne Straus, the president of the newspaper company, responded. "There's nothing illegal or dangerous about the DARE photograph," she said. "If people don't like the presence of the army at the DARE event, that's their business. And frankly we don't see the problem with it. The job of The Sparta Independent is to report what's happening in our community. What's happening? The military is involved with DARE Day. Is the community better off knowing this is going on? Our answer is a resounding yes. The role of a responsible independent community weekly newspaper is to make readers aware of what's happening and then let them decide what action, if any, should be taken. To those who have expressed anger at the paper's decision to publish these photos, we say ‘don't kill the messenger.' We're just reporting what we saw and what's happening. Now the police and the community as a whole need to decide what to do with the information." The Sparta police defended the presence of the Humvee. "We didn't do anything differently," said Cpl. Sue Jespersen of the Sparta police and first-year coordinator of the youth program. "There was nothing new, nothing that hadn't been done in the past. And now, there's a complaint." The Sparta police department conducts the DARE program for the township's elementary and junior high school students. Jespersen said the 17-week program teaches young people to avoid drugs and alcohol while renouncing violence. Representatives from the U.S. Army, N.J. National Guard, FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and surrounding area police departments have attended DARE Day to provide support for program initiatives. "It's community policing at its best," said Sparta police Sgt. Russell Smith, who established the program in town during the early ‘80s. "The kids get to know us on a personal level. Most people realize the Army comes to events like this to promote themselves as role models; whether they are protecting the country or fighting the war on drugs." Jespersen said some organizations have said they cannot have as great an impact on children by sitting behind a table without the equipment they rely on to do their daily tasks on display. "We certainly respect what they do," said Gregory. "Maybe they need to present themselves in a different manner than with a Humvee and a machine gun." According to Jespersen, in the past, event coordinators have accommodated special requests, from removing peanuts for kids with allergies to replacing lactate-filled treats with ice pops.