DARE program looks to reorganize its priorities

By MARICELLA MIRANDA, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - D.A.R.E. isn't just about drug prevention anymore.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program is reinventing itself after years of being dropped by schools and police departments struggling with stretched financial budgets.

To prove its relevance, D.A.R.E. has added lessons about online safety, bullying, choosing good role models and other current topics. It also is teaming up for certain subjects with experts from the community - not just police - to save cities and schools money.

"Minnesota is a very progressive state," said Kathi Ackerman, executive director of Minnesota D.A.R.E. "In a recession - you need to think outside the box and utilize whatever you have."

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district - the fourth largest in Minnesota - eliminated D.A.R.E. this year to help reduce its budget. The Hastings district also dropped it for a year to test its effectiveness and consider alternative options.

And many districts, like St. Paul and Minneapolis, abandoned the program years ago.

"We can't prove for sure that it is helping," said Superintendent Tim Collins of Hastings schools. "So then why spend the time and energy on the program?"

The Minnesota Education Department's latest Student Surveys in 2007 and 2004, showed drug and alcohol use in the past year among sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders in the metro area steadily increased from 3 percent of sixth-graders to at least 29 percent of 12th-graders.

Meanwhile, the number of D.A.R.E. participants statewide is declining. Last school year, there were at least 3,590 fewer students compared with two years ago, Ackerman said. "What confuses people is they think D.A.R.E. is the anti-drug program of the 1980s," Ackerman said. Because of that, people think "the program doesn't work."

But D.A.R.E. is undergoing a major makeover, she said.

To help schools and cities bypass the cost of using officers as teachers, they now partner with specialized groups and companies for some lessons. Computer experts from the Geek Squad teach students about online safety, and officials from the Minnesota Pharmacists Association talk about the effects of mixing prescription drugs.

The program also offers schools supplemental lessons about bullying, role models and gangs. D.A.R.E. officials also are training health teachers, too, so they can teach the program's curriculum in class, instead of just police officers.

D.A.R.E. was founded in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department and eventually spread across the country, including Minnesota.

Today, the program reaches more than 26 million children every year and is taught in more than 70 percent of the nation's school districts, according to the organization. Its curriculum has been revamped at least 10 times since its creation, Ackerman said.

The program uses trained law enforcement officers to teach students, usually fifth-graders, about drug and alcohol resistance and prevention, and making good life choices. The hour-long classes typically run 10 to 17 weeks, depending on the school.

But for years, D.A.R.E.'s effectiveness has received mixed reviews.

Researchers from the Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., found the D.A.R.E. curriculum "highly effective in prevention of smoking among elementary school-aged children," according to a 2002 study in the Journal of the National Medical Association.

But other researchers question the program's success. More than 30 other scientific studies show "the core D.A.R.E. program does not prevent drug use in the short term, nor does it prevent drug use when students are ready to enter high school or college," University of Illinois-Chicago professor Dennis Rosenbaum wrote in a 2007 article for the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

Rosenbaum, who could not be reached for comment, teaches criminal justice and psychology.

D.A.R.E. officials do not dispute that the program's effectiveness lessens if only given once to students in fifth grade - which is when most students usually take the class, said Mike Lien, director of the North Central Region of D.A.R.E. America, which includes Minnesota.

"One application is not the medicine for ages K through 12," he said.

Students should receive drug prevention lessons until they graduate, Lien said. While many schools concentrate on the elementary school program, D.A.R.E. also offers programs for middle and high school levels.

For teacher Mary Scales, she says D.A.R.E. is a necessary part of her students' health education. Scales is a fifth-grade teacher at Hamilton Elementary in Coon Rapids, where officer Dawn Berglund recently held the first D.A.R.E. class of the year.

"The kids really get to know a police officer," Scales said. "They also come with lots of questions. It's shocking what kids have seen with alcohol and drug use."

It's important to remember, Scales said, students not only deal with drugs in their neighborhoods - but in their homes, too.

D.A.R.E first began disappearing from St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools in the late 1990s because of lack of funding. Now the program is vanishing from suburban schools, too.

Facing a $15 million budget shortfall, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district dropped D.A.R.E. from its 18 elementary schools this year to save an estimated $50,000 annually, said Julie Olson, director of elementary education. The district had used the program nearly two decades.

But money wasn't the only reason. District leaders eliminated the program to free up classroom time, and also because they question its overall effectiveness.

The three city police departments helped fund D.A.R.E officers, too.

In its absence, the district plans to continue offering two substance abuse prevention programs that use trained high school students to teach fourth- and sixth-graders about prevention. A third program, called Life Skills, is offered in eighth grade.

In Hastings, school leaders eliminated its 17-year-old D.A.R.E. program.

The decision will provide more class time for required subjects, Superintendent Collins said.

The decision came after school leaders reviewed the district's student survey results of alcohol and drug use and began questioning D.A.R.E.'s effectiveness.

"We continue to see (drug and alcohol) usage not decreasing," Collins said.

Dropping the program means that one full-time police officer - who used to teach in the schools - will now be available on the streets, said Hastings Police Chief Paul Schnell.

His department is leading a six-week initiative to determine whether to replace D.A.R.E., and to find solutions for fighting drug and underage alcohol use in the city. Business members, residents, city leaders, the state health department and schools will participate.

"There's no turning our back on the fact that there is a problem," Schnell said. "But the key question is what are the best ways that we address" it?


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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