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For the week of Sept. 1, 1999 through Sept. 7, 1999

County officials clash over DARE program effectiveness


By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer

Local advocates of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) swear by their program and support it nearly to the brink of civil disobedience. However, recent national studies have concluded that DARE has no long-term effect on substance abuse.

A recent funding shortage, which threatened the future of the program in Blaine County, led to a fervent public protest that the county increase its funding of the program. Apparently as a result of that protest the county commissioners agreed to do so, though not to the degree the program’s advocates had demanded.

The drug and alcohol education and prevention program focuses on teaching students to resist social pressures to use those substances. Additionally, the curriculum, taught by sheriff’s deputies, provides information about drugs and attempts to teach decision-making skills, build self-esteem, and provide healthy alternatives to drug and alcohol use. The program also acts to combat violence in schools.

A recent study conducted by the University of Kentucky found that the program produced some initial improvements in young attitudes toward drug and alcohol use, but that the changes didn’t last.

Researchers tracked more than 1,000 sixth-graders who participated in DARE and found that 10 years later:

 23 percent smoked half a pack of cigarettes a day.

 30 percent used alcohol at least once a week in the past year.

 46 percent had used marijuana at least once in the past year.

 24 percent had used other drugs, such as cocaine, at least once in the past year.

The study determined that those percentages were similar to those for students who did not participate in the program.

Local authorities disagree as to how such studies relate to Blaine County, which has a percentage of juvenile substance abuse that exceeds state and national averages, according to a 1997 DARE survey.

But Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said there’s a "huge difference" between the Blaine County DARE program and national programs.

The standard DARE curriculum consists of police officers going into schools and conducting one-hour presentations over a 17-week period.

Femling said in an interview that on a national level "there’s only one officer for a couple of dozen schools" and that the curriculum consists of officers "just doing presentations without any one-on-one interaction and no building of personal relationships between police officers and students.

"Our program is more than just curriculum and going to schools and making presentations. We’ve expanded on that in Blaine County.

"Our officers also act as school resource officers. They’re in the schools everyday, building relationships with the kids. They’re greeting the kids as they come off the bus, in the hallways, talking with kids that have problems," Femling said. "That’s what DARE is about, connecting with kids and keeping our schools safe."

But the recent protest in support of the program was organized and led by parents and adult advocates of the DARE program—not by the kids. Some believe that the kids whom the effort is intended to help have been caught up in the middle of the debate and somewhat forgotten and overshadowed by the frenzy.

Blaine County Commissioner Dennis Wright said that despite studies which show DARE has no long-term effect on drug and alcohol use, many adults have bought into the program so heavily that they’ve become closed minded and are unwilling to consider alternatives.

"It’s almost become a religion for DARE advocates and parents that support the program," Wright said.

Wright said that public comment in support of or opposition to the program during last month’s controversy was a matter of perspective and situation.

"Parents that called in and said they were in favor had kids in the fifth and sixth grade who had yet to be influenced by drugs and alcohol," he said.

However, Wright said, "the parents of middle and high school students—whose kids are involved with drugs and alcohol—said the program doesn’t work.

"As long as we wander like a bunch of sheep down this path called DARE—knowing the studies show that when kids hit the 10th or 11th grade, a high percentage are going to have a problem with drugs and alcohol—I wonder if parents and advocates of DARE are simply trying to make themselves feel better and answer their own fears."

"Let’s get to the real facts," Wright said in an interview. "The DARE program is not for parents, it’s to help the kids and if it’s not working then we have to be willing to consider alternatives."

Wright said supporters of DARE have the mentality that "I know it’s not working, but at least we’re trying to do something about it." However, Wright said, "a way to do something about the juvenile substance abuse problem is to be willing to admit the program isn’t working and to have the courage to consider alternatives."

"If you’re not willing to look at alternatives," Wright said, "then you’re cheating the very kids you’re suppose to be helping and you become part of the problem."

Wright said it was the county’s position to "first try and logically recognize that we have a problem in our valley with juvenile substance abuse, second, that we have limited resources to deal with the problem, and third to continue to search for effective places to direct those resources."

Wright said he wasn’t necessarily implying that DARE should be dropped but that the program needs to be changed and improved and that taking a different approach should be considered.

"We have to keep searching for a better method until we come up with a program that shows positive results," Wright said.

"If you want to know if DARE is effective, talk to the kids and listen to what they’re saying. My son said everyone in school behind him had the DARE curriculum, yet he asked why the high school is full of druggies."

In light of the obvious substance abuse problem that exists among local youth and recent studies that question the effectiveness of the DARE program, Femling acknowledged that "any program can always use improvements."

"We’re going to look at the national DARE studies and consider what we can do locally to improve our program," Femling said in an interview.

According to DARE president and founder, Glenn Levant, the program, which starts in elementary grades, was designed to be reinforced in middle and high schools, but that only 60 percent of school districts across the nation carry it to later grades. DARE advocates nationwide believe this flaw is in part responsible for the negative results of recent studies.

Femling said the DARE program in Blaine County, which began six years ago and originally took place only in grade schools, was expanded last year into the middle schools. He said his department and the DARE committee were looking at the possibility of expanding the program into the high schools.

"We start building relationships in grade schools and continue into the middle schools and then kind of just dump kids off into high school," Femling said.

Femling also pointed out that DARE is more than just drug prevention. He said the program also plays a critical role in keeping violence out of schools.

Femling referred to the Columbine massacre and said that dozens of kids there knew the shootings were going to take place, but that they weren’t comfortable about coming forward and telling school officials about the situation.

"By building relationships in our schools between DARE officers and students, we’re creating an atmosphere where kids feel comfortable in coming forward to DARE officers on safety issues," Femling said.

"School violence in this country is not over," Femling said, "it’s just starting. We need to keep officers in schools and create positive relationships with students. The only way to stop tragedies like Columbine from happening in our schools is to prevent them before they happen."

 

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