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More than 900 Santa Maria-area elementary students vowed to make smart choices and consider the consequences of their actions during a Friday morning graduation for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

The twice-yearly ceremony attracts parents, school administrators and community leaders to the Santa Maria Elks Lodge as they celebrate students' completion of the 10-week program.

"We want to teach students how to take responsibility for themselves and responsibility for their own actions," said Mike Wheeler, one of the Santa Maria Police Department's D.A.R.E. officers. "We're giving them the tools to stop and think about the decisions they're making."

According to Wheeler, the program has expanded beyond its drug-free messaging and now focuses on resisting peer pressure, dealing with stress and, ultimately, making smart choices.

"These skills apply to everyday life — at home, in school and with friends — and are things they can use for the rest of their life," he said.

Wheeler said Friday's graduation is the first since the Santa Maria-Bonita School District restructured its D.A.R.E. program to add two new instructors: officers Sam Gwo and Monique Sandoval. The three officers will also interact with the graduates during rotations as school resource officers for area junior high schools.

"You're the reason we do this; we're proud you made it to this point" Wheeler told the students. "I can't wait to see what the future holds for all of us."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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