HEIDELBERG, Germany -- About 173 Heidelberg Middle School seventh graders graduated from Drug Abuse Resistance Education's Keepin' It Real program at the school on Patrick Henry Village Dec. 15.

The 10-week program, which began in early October, was taught by Sgt. Nicola Mascia from the U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg Provost Marshal Office. This is Mascia's first time instructing DARE.

"I am learning as I go. I know how things are going to be on the battlefield, but with kids it's a different thing. There is an element of surprise. You know what the enemy is [when you're deployed], but here you don't. You have kids who maybe have a rough lifestyle, or those who've had a nice one, and you need to know how to react."

DARE lessons focus on providing accurate information about alcohol and drugs, teaching decision making skills, developing techniques to resist peer pressure and providing alternatives to drug use and violence.

The Department of Defense Dependents Schools adopted the curriculum to assist local law enforcement officers and school officials to combat the temptations associated with today's youth.

Each term, principal Stephanie El Sayed decides which class is most prepared for the training, and this time she chose the seventh grade.

"This program emphasizes how to get out of a situation, which is more than what they learned in the fifth grade," Mascia said. "With some kids, you have to be more sturdy and gentle, but you can't be monotonous."

The middle school program, subtitled "Keepin' It Real," builds on the curriculum students received two years ago at Patrick Henry Elementary.

The current program included interactive lessons and five youth-produced videos that were based on students' real stories. The students were also required to submit essays that described how to make good choices.

Two students, Renee Sahli and Hannah Cornish, received honors for their essays, and Andres Torres-Lopez and Renee Sipos won Best Overall Student.

The Best Students were determined by participation in class, good behavior and true belief in the curriculum. While Mascia taught, teachers observed and later provided feedback to decide the winners.

San Antonio native Torres-Lopez said where he comes from, it's not unusual for children to try drugs as early as 9 years old.

"Kids don't know really, because they're in Germany. If you go to the states, you see people doing drugs," he said.

Sahli, a fellow Texas native, agreed.

"Although they do drugs here, it's just less of an influence because it's a whole different culture. They have different religions and how they do things. They do drugs really young, and they are influenced by friends because they don't know to say no, because they don't see how it's going to hurt them as they grow up," Sahli said.

"People think, 'Oh, it's just in the movies or in this program,' but it's really going to happen to you one day. So, you just have to be prepared and make the right choices.

DARE was established in Los Angeles in 1983, and according to its website, is the largest, most comprehensive drug education and violence prevention program in the world. It impacts an estimated 36 million children in kindergarten through 12th grade in 400,000 classrooms each year, in 50 states and 54 countries.

According to DARE, the middle school program has effectively reduced (pre)-teen alcohol, marijuana and tobacco use by preparing them to act defensively when refusing offers to use, by helping to recognize risks and avoid drug-related situations, by building strong decision-making, communication, planning and assertive refusal skills and by teaching teens to value their own perceptions and feelings and make choices that support drug-free values.

For information about DARE, visit www.dare.com.