Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

TOP STORY > >Helping youngsters stay off drugs

Leader staff writer

The DARE program – Drug Abuse Resistance Education – is an established part of public school life in Jacksonville, Sherwood, Cabot and across the United States as well as 50 other countries. The brain- child of Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates more than 25 years ago, the program is now in every state and 1,800 school districts, where the curriculum is delivered by 15,000 police officers trained and certified as DARE instructors. By one estimate, the program reaches 36 million students each year.

The DARE program is free to the schools, provided by local law enforcement agencies, relieving financially strapped school systems from the cost of program materials and implementation.

The question for years has been, how effective is DARE in helping youth resist using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco? Those in the business of evaluating the effectiveness of public health education programsare not convinced the popular program really works. DARE does not appear on the lengthy list of effective, research-based youth substance-abuse programs recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the federal government. The U.S. surgeon general and U.S. Department of Education are among critics who say DARE is ineffective or even counter-productive.

Police, who as school resource officers interact day in, day out with Jacksonville youth, say that they don’t necessarily need a research study to convince them that the DARE program is worthwhile. Proof enough is the bond between child and officer and how a caring adult can “speak into a child’s life,” says Cpt. Charley Jenkins, a former school resource officer.

For him, the chance meeting with a young man years after graduating from DARE who proudly proclaimed “still drug free!” is the kind of evidence that counts.

“My four years in the schools have been a success, having reached that one man,” Jenkins said. “You don’t necessarily hear about the ones staying drug free.”

“We form a strong relationship with a lot of kids – that is important from the police’s perspective – to get them to trust you,” Cpl. Les Hockaday, longtime school resource and DARE instructor, said. “They can talk to you if they are having a problem, as a friend. The little ones, they love their DARE officers and miss you when you are not there.”

The Jacksonville Police Department invests about $10,000 annually in the DARE program, which is taught in all Jacksonville schools, in fifth grade and again in middle school health classes. Ten hours of classroom time is used for each program.

Besides instructional materials, the funds pay for “incentives” to help get the DARE message across – ball caps, T-shirts, pens, rulers, pencils, and other items. Four police officers are assigned to all the campuses – elementary, middle and high school.

In order to become a DARE instructor, an officer completes an interview, a written application, and then two weeks of training that helps make the shift from street cop to educator – “some of the hardest training I ever had and that includes 20 years-plus in the Air Force,” Hockaday said.

Drug resistance education is only one component of DARE. Self-esteem, how to wisely choose friends, and good decision-making skills are other topics covered in DARE. And the school resource officer program is about more than the DARE program. The officers who participate are ready to address a host of problems – disorder in the classroom, bullying, gangs, and violence – in accord with a principal’s request, Hockaday said.

Hockaday says early bonding between the officers and children is a crucial element of the program’s effectiveness that carries into middle and high school.

“We have got kids that come to us all the time and let us know if someone has drugs. They don’t want drugs on their campus.

We teach them that with drugs come violence; if someone has drugs, they’ll be carrying a gun.”

There is a box in every school in which students can anonymously leave a message for the police or tip about someone suspected of possession of illegal substances.

“Kids put questions in the box about a lot of things, and sometimes you might find a disclosure,” Hockaday said. He recalled one such message that resulted in one child’s relatives being arrested and imprisoned for drug possession.

Michael Nellums, principal of the Jacksonville Boys Middle School, and Kimala Forrest, principal of Jacksonville Girls Middle School, both report an absence of drug- and alcohol-related incidents on campus. Forrest credits DARE and the middle school curriculum, an addition to the original DARE. She says students are “hearing and retaining” DARE material presented to them in elementary school, because her girls recollect it.

“We now have more officers trained to be in the schools, and kids are better educated,” Forrest said. “They start in the elementary schools and added middle school. That has made a big difference.”

Researchers say that positive anecdotes about students here and there are not sufficient evidence that DARE is widely effective.

If a medication or treatment only helped a small percentage of the population, it would not be marketed. The same standard, they say, should go for educational programs meant to change behavior. How well a program is liked by teachers and police officers does not validate its effectiveness.

Over the last decade, study after study found the original DARE program to be ineffective and in some cases counterproductive in deterring kids from using illegal substances. One study, by researchers at the University of Kentucky Center for Prevention Research, found no impact on use of cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana for students one year and five years after going through 16 weeks of DARE training in sixth grade, compared to students who had had one unit about drugs in health class. Researchers faulted the DARE program for not being in tune with what scientists know about adolescent development.

In 2001, with the help of a $13.6 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, DARE was redesigned in response to criticisms. Decision making, communication, and refusal skills are now central to the curriculum. The “new DARE” reaches kindergarteners and offers “booster” programs for the upper grades, when youngsters are most likely to experiment with illicit substances.

The program now focuses more intensively on the gateway drugs, tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and inhalants, and offers a curriculum on abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The Jacksonville Police Department plans to use the new program this year.

“Looking at national trends, I really wanted to push that curriculum this year,” Jenkins said.

The methods for engaging students has changed too, with fewer lectures and more group activities, role playing, courtroom enactments, and colorful videos.

Preliminary results of a five-year study tracking more than 20,000 students in the DARE program in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark (N.J.), New Orleans, and St. Louis showed slightly better decision making and drug resistance skills for DARE graduates in seventh-grade, compared with a control group. The conclusive report on DARE’s effectiveness in rates of substance abuse, especially in later adolescence, has not been published.

Warren Bickel, director of the Center of Addiction Research at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, hopes that Arkansas schools use rigorous criteria in choosing a drug-abuse prevention program.

“As in deciding what works with their educational efforts – that the same is applied with their drug prevention efforts – that they have more criteria than it’s cheap and easy – but that it also works,” Bickel said.

“Everybody and their brother expect the schools to solve all the problems and fix kids. It is a hard row to hoe. DARE in some ways makes it easy for the schools.”

Karen Sullards, principal of Bayou Meto Elementary School, misses the DARE program, which no longer is in the Pulaski County schools outside Jacksonville and Sherwood city limits. Funding shortfalls forced the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office to cut the program in 2005.

“When fifth-graders went through DARE, they learned a lot of things – how to say no, how to handle peer pressure especially. It really helped those kids who couldn’t verbalize their feelings. It helped them come out.”