No matter where he goes in the city, Meriden Police Officer Tom Cirillo is bound to have someone – from a fifth grader to a 33-year-old – come up to him and say, "You were my DARE officer! Do you remember me?"
And you know what he usually says?
"Well, let's see, your name is Cindy, you went to John Barry, you were in Miss Nerden's class, and you sat in the front row" with amazing recall, according to Meriden Police Acting Captain Sal Nesci, who talked about the retiring 31-year officer at the city's 22nd annual DARE dinner Thursday night. "It is really something to see," he told the crowd.
Cirillo, who started and has been in charge of the city's Drug Abuse Resistance Education program for 24 years, is retiring at the end of June, a factor that turned this year's annual dinner and award ceremony into a fond farewell. Officers estimate that he has taught in the ballpark of 20,000 local children about staying away from drugs, tobacco, alcohol and gangs, through the years.
The dinner, which is now in its 22nd year, honors the top DARE student from each Meriden elementary school – public and private – who has been in the program that year, along with a group of "Role Model" students from the local high schools who present to these classes. It is sponsored by the Rotary Club, Four Points Sheraton, and other partners. This year 11 "Top Student" awards were given out and 13 "Role Models" were honored in front of their families, local police, and officials.
In Meriden, and much of the nation, the DARE program is provided to all fifth graders each year. For ten weeks in the fall, students have an hour-long class each week, taught by one of six specially-trained officers.
Meriden was the first city in the state to have a community DARE program, according to Cirillo. DARE began in Los Angeles in 1983 and became nationally-known throughout the decade. In the late 1980s it was being discussed at a state crime prevention meeting in Connecticut – and Cirillo thought it sounded interesting. He brought the idea back to Meriden, and in 1988, started his first trial class at Israel Putnam Elementary School, Cirillo said in an interview Friday.
A veteran teacher there, the late Bob Otfinowski, told him, "I'm going to be critiquing you after every lesson," and indeed instructed the officer on his teaching. "He was a terrific, terrific mentor," Cirillo said.
The police liked it, and the schools liked it too, so after the test class, the program expanded to all the city's grade schools the following year.
Neighborhood Association President Dave Swedock believes Cirillo's work has been a help in keeping gang activity down in Meriden as compared with Hartford and New Haven.
"I think he's responsible in part for Meriden not having much gang activity," Swedock said. "He reaches every fifth grader in the city."
Deputy Chief Timothy Topulos says Cirillo is effective with kids - and memorable to former students - because has a fatherly presence, he's not just a police officer telling them what to do.
"Tom's family is most important to him – and these students are an extension of his family," Topulos said. "That resonates with them."
The Police are accepting applications internally right now to replace Cirillo in the DARE coordinator role, a full-time position, Topulos said. "Whoever comes in has some big shoes to fill."
Retirement likely won't stop Cirillo's work with DARE and crime and gang prevention, Cirillo said, he may start consulting for various organizations.
Either way, he will miss his long-held role – and the officers will miss him, as well as the community.
Nesci illustrated that Thursday night, telling the crowd a story about ordering a cake for the event at the Big Y grocery store this week.
"I said to the young lady who was in her twenties, I said, 'Can you please write thank you for the many years of service officer Tom,'" Nesci said.
"She looked at me in horror and said 'My DARE instructor is retiring?' She couldn't believe it. Neither can I."