By Laura Wheeler
Assistant Criminal District Attorney, and
J. Brett Smith
Criminal District Attorney, in Grayson County
Statistics show that close to 90 percent of Americans with a substance abuse problem started drinking, smoking, vaping, or using other drugs before the age of 18. Closer to home, our county has seen a large increase in children and teenagers falling victim to sexual predators through phone apps, social media, gaming systems, and other grooming tactics. With these problems in mind, the seed was planted for law enforcement and our office to host community awareness presentations.
Brett Smith, the Criminal District Attorney in Grayson County (and a co-author of this article), had worked in law enforcement prior to becoming an attorney. He and our local Texas Ranger, Brad Oliver, discussed being more proactive in preventing crime. Oftentimes, prosecutors’ work is mostly reactive—that is, a crime occurs, the police investigate, and we prosecute. All of our work occurs after the crime. Why not educate those in our community about the dangers we see every day to perhaps prevent future crimes?
Our office currently has two programs to educate parents, grandparents, educators, and community members about the dangers that our children and teens face in today’s society. The Sexual Predator Awareness (SPA) and Drug Abuse Awareness (DAA) seminars are held on various school or community college campuses in our county, usually in the evenings for about two hours, the last 30 minutes of which is a question-and-answer session. Our SPA seminars draw the largest crowds, about 150 citizens each time! That seminar focuses on how predators use social media and various electronic applications to find victims. The DAA seminar, on the other hand, educates people on current drug, alcohol, and vaping trends, signs of substance abuse, and resources for treatment or assistance.
The SPA seminar is in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas. U.S. Attorney Joe Brown (formerly the elected Criminal District Attorney of our office) encourages interagency cooperation between state and federal partners in this project. This collaboration allows us to bring in Assistant U.S. Attorney Marissa Miller, a child exploitation prosecutor, and the highly dedicated Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jen Sparks, who is assigned to the Bureau’s CARD (Child Abduction Rapid Deployment) team. These two bring invaluable experience to the presentation.
In this past year, we have presented three SPA and two DAA seminars, with more on the calendar. The audience is limited to adults over age 18 because of the content, and our primary goal is spreading this information to educators, parents, and community leaders. Crowd response has been incredible—attendees’ feedback is that they are shocked these problems exist in our community. These seminars generally draw many questions from parents on how they can protect their children from predators and drug abuse. At the end, we often have to remind the audience our time is up and we all have to be at work early because the questions just keep coming, and we refer them to links on our office Facebook page for more information.
We have tremendous cooperation from our law enforcement agencies, the Sherman and Denison Police Departments and Grayson County Sheriff’s Office, which have dedicated officers and resources to this project. Lt. Jeremy Cox of the Sherman PD has been an instrumental member of the team developing these projects. ADA Laura Wheeler, the other co-author of this article, has prepared outlines, scheduled meetings, and coordinated the events and the publicity for them. She also arranged with the Grayson County Department of Juvenile Services to have the father of a drug-involved teenager speak about his real-life experiences and struggles as the parent of a young addict. We even brought in our local Substance Abuse Counsel for input on such issues.
In the beginning, we did not know if anyone from the community would show up—we wondered, “If we build it, will they come?” It is hard to gauge the fruits of our labor, but all involved have a passion for protecting our community and believe that our time and energy is well-spent. As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing.” To encourage attendance, we spread the word by running newspaper ads, issuing press releases, doing media interviews, and appearing on television community forums. Our local school districts publish seminar posters on their websites and in their newsletters and push them out via social media. We also post on our office Facebook page and, of course, spread the news by word of mouth. These programs have been well-received, and we continue to get calls for more programs on different topics. We have been asked by many parents to create a “PG” version of the SPA seminar to roll out to their children, so that may be our next project.
To strengthen the relationships within our communities, we strongly advocate that other prosecutor offices and law enforcement agencies consider putting on these types of programs. We have found that our community welcomes the conversation and is grateful for the time and information. We are fortunate to have a platform from which to promote community awareness of these and other serious issues, and our office considers it a privilege to provide information and guidance to anyone interested. You may contact us at [email protected], [email protected],us, or 903/813-4361 with any questions.