Solon’s newest D.A.R.E. officer is no stranger to the community’s youth.
As a road officer with the Solon Police Department for the past 19 years, William DiGiovanni, 45, is often found surrounded by young people, whether it is patrolling through the summer with a cooler full of ice cream, or just stopping to talk to kids at various city playgrounds and pools.
The needs of the community’s youth has always been close to his heart, he said, and he prides himself on the relationships he has formed with them and being accessible to them “100 percent.”
So when the opening for a D.A.R.E. officer for the Solon Schools became available upon the recent retirement of Officer JoAnn Felton, it was a perfect fit.
“I can easily relate to kids,” said Mr. DiGiovanni, better known to young people as “Officer Billy D. “I’ve always saw the value in connecting with the youth in the community, and I have always enjoyed leadership roles in Cub scouts and youth wrestling.”
In fact, the father of three boys said with a warm smile that he is a big kid himself.
As a result, Mr. DiGiovanni is known to bring humor — and even an entertainment element — to his role within the schools, where he teaches the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program to students, primarily in seventh grade.
“When I was in school in sixth grade in the 1980s, we had to watch a Mr. T video on peer pressure and do a worksheet,” he said. “There was a song from that in my head for over 20 years now and I play it for the kids.
“They don’t know Mr. T, but they laugh,” Mr. DiGiovanni, a North Royalton resident, said. “It’s a fun learning tool.”
While he is still developing his own program with relation to D.A.R.E., Mr. DiGiovanni said he does a lot of role play and basic conversations in bringing valuable lessons to the forefront.
“Essentially the D.A.R.E. program is a communications program,” he said. “Over the years, they realized the ‘just say no’ kind of style was not effective, so it has evolved in its modern day form which basically teaches youth communications skills when they are in a pressured situation.”
It teaches when to say no, not just to drugs and alcohol, but everything that is not safe, he added.
“We do a lot of talking,” Mr. DiGiovanni said, as well as learning assertive means of communication.
Mr. DiGiovanni also tells many stories to kids to give as examples.
“I always seem to have a story that really happened within the community involving someone their age or a little older,” he said. “Once I start telling them a real story, they’re in.
“They will even ask me, ‘do you have a story going on with this?’”
Mr. DiGiovanni cited of the many issues affecting youth these days such things as vaping.
“Vaping is definitely an emerging trend that the students surprisingly don’t know about,” he said. “Everyone knows about cigarettes or the dangers of cigarette smoke, but because vaping is new and the commercials and social media hasn’t caught up, they have a ton of questions.
“It’s surprising they don’t recognize it as dangerous as it is,” he said.
In the classroom, Mr. DiGiovanni also does a great deal of facilitation, he continued.
“I’ll propose a problem, and then they will try to solve it,” he said. “I will take them through that process.
“It’s really awesome,” Mr. DiGiovanni added. “The better I get at it, it’s very cool.”
In addition to his role as a D.A.R.E. officer, Mr. DiGiovanni is also the department’s juvenile officer within the detective bureau and is the first to carry the dual role.
“It’s a challenge,” he said of the dual position, “but something I wanted to take on.
“I think D.A.R.E. is such an important tool for community relations,” he said. “It’s invaluable.”
As a juvenile officer for the entire city, any case involving youth comes across his desk, Mr. DiGiovanni explained.
“I contact the parents or the teachers if it’s a school issue,” he said. “I get a feel for the situation.”
The matter is typically sent down to the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court with a recommendation, often to the diversion process, he said.
“I’m very honored to have the position, and I take it seriously,” Mr. DiGiovanni said. “I always felt indebted to the City of Solon for hiring me.”
Prior to his job on the Solon department, Mr. DiGiovanni worked as a corrections officer in downtown Cleveland. His grandfather, who shares his same name, was also a police officer, serving the city of Shaker Heights.
“The new position is challenging, and I’m still rising to meet those challenges,” he added of the D.A.R.E. role. “It’s very humbling.”