The impact Al Torres has had on local elementary students was plain to see during a recent graduation ceremony for some 600 sixth-graders who have completed the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E.) under the Santa Maria police officer’s watch.
His students showed that Torres has gotten through to them by hugging him appreciatively, giving speeches in which they described techniques he has taught them to refuse offers of drugs, and by vowing to remain drug-free.
The students who took part in the ceremony last week at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge were in the last D.A.R.E. graduating class that Torres will oversee, as he plans to retire from the Santa Maria Police Department on Dec. 30 after 33 years there and seven years in charge of D.A.R.E.
He has taught the D.A.R.E. program to more than 8,000 Santa Maria students, according to Maggie White, spokeswoman for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District.
Friday’s graduates were from seven schools in the district.
Torres, who wants to continue to teach D.A.R.E. part-time after his retirement, and help the new officer in charge of the course, said that the students have touched him, as well. The 56-year-old Santa Maria-area resident, who is a married father of three, called the job of a D.A.R.E. officer “very rewarding.”
An officer has not yet been selected to take over the job, Torres said.
“I think you have to care for the kids and really be there for them,” he said of his strategy for success.
D.A.R.E. graduates will face a lot of peer pressure in junior high, Torres said, and he visits the junior high schools sometimes to check up on his former students.
“I just try to be there for them,” Torres added.
He acknowledged some will fall into behavior that goes against what he has taught them, but he helps those he can.
Torres previously worked as a school resource officer, and in gang and narcotic suppression.
He said he uses tools from his past experience in teaching D.A.R.E.
The children seem especially affected when he shows them how the body is damaged by drug use, Torres said.
Indeed, the damage alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs cause the body was a frequent topic in essays read Friday by students who won awards for the papers they wrote concerning D.A.R.E.
One student speaker told how he had already implemented a decision-making process taught in D.A.R.E. to make a choice he felt good about.
Several children told personal stories of how excessive alcohol use by family members had affected their lives.
Torres was honored during the ceremony, and was presented with a plaque for his service.
After being prompted to do so, the roughly 600 students yelled in unison, “Officer Torres, you are absolutely the best!” before bursting into applause.
Emily Ventura, a sixth-grader at Ontiveros Elementary School, said after the ceremony was over that Torres was a good teacher.
“He was a great officer. Very inspiring,” she said. “Even those very serious topics, he made it fun for us.”
Michael McKinney from Battles Elementary School said he appreciated the time Torres spent working with the students, and the effort he made in setting up the ceremony at the Elks Lodge and providing D.A.R.E. T-shirts.
“He’s been inspirational, definitely,” McKinney added.
Mark Muller, the director of pupil personnel services for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said he was the principal at El Camino Junior High School for a number of years while Torres was the school resource officer there.
“Officer Torres is very well known by the community of Santa Maria (and) the students,” he said. “He’s almost legendary among the kids.”
Torres has made a positive impact on thousands, Muller said.
“He has done a wonderful job, and he is going to be very difficult to replace.”