Articles by Reesa Marchetti

DARE: No panacea for drug plague
Program elicits divided opinion

©Gloucester County Times
By REESA MARCHETTI

DARE programAfter filling the pockets of their striped uniforms with penny candy, a group of ninth-grade Pennsville Township girls raced to hop into their softball coach's van for a recent after-school game.

The coach had no idea that Danielle had smoked a marijuana cigarette a few minutes before and that Shannon would probably cap off the game with a beer.

"Everybody does it," said Shannon, an honors student.

Despite efforts by programs such as Project DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in public schools, use of drugs and alcohol is common for many local teens. When asked if they thought that the DARE program helped keep kids off drugs, the girls shouted "No!'' in unison and laughed.

DARE has been criticized by a number of individuals and organizations-including the pro-marijuana-legalization Grassroots Party-for failing to prevent substance abuse. Supporters insist that DARE helps kids, but is not intended to be a cure-all for community and family problems.

According to one softball team member, Bridget, some kids who participate in the DARE program routinely take—and sell—drugs.

"They wear the DARE tee-shirts as a joke," she said. "They paint over the letters where it says `DARE to keep kids off drugs' and change it to `on.' "

Teens are using drugs, the girls agreed, and it's often adults who encourage them or obtain the drugs for them.

"I was baby-sitting a 5-year-old and went across the street with the baby to a neighbor's house," Bridget said. "She's in her 30s, and she asked me if I got high and if I wanted to smoke a joint—right in front of the kid and everything."

DARE is fun, they said, but it can't stop a teen intent on drug abuse.

"If kids are going to do something, they're going to do it anyway,'' Samantha said as she pushed her curls back into her ball cap, "no matter what someone tells them.''

Only one of the players said that she had never experimented with drugs or alcohol, mainly because of her parents' strict discipline. Her acquaintances know better than to try talking her into it, she said.

"I got a level head," Amber said. "They know I don't do anything, so they don't bother me."

***

The value of DARE in keeping kids off drugs is questionable to some people, but local educators unanimously praise it as a worthwhile program. Although it may not help every student, according to Sgt. Jim Eden, the state's senior DARE instructor, it's "better than doing nothing."

Programs such as DARE are much better than that, says Professor Dona Schneider of Rutgers University, who has written a book about children at risk. Schneider said that kids constantly get messages from billboards, TV, radio and movies that give the impression that any behavior is acceptable.

"There's a major need for grownups to stand up for what is right and wrong and to set standards,'' she said. "We need programs with adult involvement so that adults say, `No more!' "

High-profile programs such as DARE and MADD help, Schneider said.

"One parent saying `no' may not be enough, but the school, the parent and two or three community organizations may help," she said. "Eventually, if we're all beating the same drum, the kids will have to hear it."

***

The DARE program was developed in 1983 by Los Angeles County police and local health educators and was quickly adopted by school districts throughout California, Eden said. DARE has since spread to every state in the nation. In New Jersey, 275,000 children participate annually.

A DARE America spokesman said that the program is funded primarily by corporate and private donations with some federal subsidies.

According to its mission statement, DARE New Jersey aims to give children the information and skills needed to live drug- and violence-free lives. The program encourages "positive relationships" between law enforcement officials and students, schools, parents and community members.

Exercises on assertiveness and building self-esteem are part of the curriculum.

"The principal target is to reduce the amount of children becoming addicted to anything, whether illegal drugs or alcohol," Eden said. "That's why the program focuses on life skills."

Eden, who has been involved since the program started in the state, said that it's difficult to test its effectiveness at preventing substance abuse because there are so many variables involved.

Some local and national studies have compared teens in DARE programs to those who received no DARE training. Some found results such as "significantly lower use of alcohol, cigarettes and drugs in DARE-trained sixth-graders." Others concluded that DARE was less successful than interactive prevention programs, such as the Winslow Township district's "Just Say No" club.

But DARE's effectiveness in improving public relations for the police is more apparent. Eden said that DARE community events are attended by thousands of people.

"Most of the community sees a different attitude from the children and their parents toward the police department and policemen in general," he said. "I think a lot of departments are keeping the program going because it puts them in a better light when it comes to community policing."

DARE will lead students to be more law-abiding when they get older, Eden said.

"They're not seeing the police as their enemy," he said. "It's just as good for the community as it is for the kids."

***

Stepping across the all-purpose room stage before an audience of parents, sixth-graders from Elk Township's Aura School recently graduated from DARE. Each student shook hands with the mayor and DARE officials.

Like her fellow graduates, Heather received a DARE hat, a DARE T-shirt, a DARE pennant and the publication "A Parent's Guide to Prevention: Growing up Drug-Free." After the ceremony, she and her friends, Sue and Christa, agreed that they didn't and wouldn't use drugs.

But they knew of at least one kid who — even after completing the DARE course and signing a drug-free pledge — "sniffs stuff."

"It's mostly like nail polish or glue," Heather said.

The number of substance abusers in the school is low—"maybe five,'' they say—and everyone knows who they are.

"They're like moody,'' Christa said. "One girl's eyes are always bloodshot.''

"She always goes outside,'' Sue added, "and when she comes back in, she smells like smoke.''

***

In contrast to studies done in other areas, Upper Pittsgrove School guidance counselor Mary Jane Smith points to a survey of local eighth-graders. It indicates that kids remembered their DARE lessons more than any other prevention program.

DARE starts with fifth- and sixth-graders who meet with an officer once a week for 17 weeks during the school year. Children are taught "accurate information'' about alcohol and drugs as well as how to make decisions, resist peer pressure and enjoy the alternatives to drug use, violence and gangs.

Middle-school students take a 10-day course. For high school, there is a six-lesson course. DARE also offers a six-lesson parent program.

Critics say that DARE creates a "Big Brother'' atmosphere of law enforcement and political indoctrination that encourages kids to "rat on'' others. Brooke, a Pennsville ninth-grader, agrees, saying that the encouragement may be indirect — but it's there.

"I know people who turned other people in, and then my boyfriend was questioned,'' Brooke said. "The DARE officer said it wasn't wrong to turn anyone in who was using drugs.

"He said it would be helping them out."

DARE officers are not trained to recruit kids as informants, Eden said, but they may report illegal activities that could harm a child. Many schools keep a DARE box for kids to leave confidential messages about their concerns, but officers aren't supposed to directly question children.

When Eden was working as a DARE officer in an elementary school, a child approached him on the playground because his mother was seeing a man who smoked pot with her in their house every night.

"They told him to leave the room, but he knew from the smoke that it wasn't cigarettes," Eden said. "He snuck out a bag of grass and held it up to me."

Rather than calling an arresting officer, Eden accompanied the child to the principal's office and arranged a meeting with the woman.

"I said to her, `Either cease what you're doing or we're going to take action,' " Eden said. "The child said that two weeks later, the boyfriend was out of the house."

Contrary to claims by groups such as Grassroots, Eden said that DARE does not bar parents from observing classes—as long as school policy permits it. At Upper Pittsgrove and in most schools, the DARE curriculum is checked by the school board before being accepted, Smith said, and parents can examine it.

***

An Alloway Township School eighth-grader, who preferred not to be identified, said that all the students like the school DARE officer.

"When he comes with us, we have class for 45 minutes. The first 20 minutes he does class, then he takes us outside," the student said. "He plays football and goes out and runs around with us."

But the state trooper's popularity doesn't stop the few substance abusers among the student population, the eighth-grader said. He doubts that DARE affects a student's decision whether or not to try drugs.

"I know three or four kids that drink and smoke weed," he said. "I've never been with my friends when they've done that."

***

From its 1990 start with a dozen officers, the DARE New Jersey program now includes more than 1,500 local, county and state police. Eden said that DARE is in 90 percent of the state's school districts.

DARE officer candidates must have been police officers for two years, and individuals who already have public contact, such as an officer who works in the juvenile division, are preferred. No special psychology education is required, Eden said, but police academies provide this type of training.

At a two-week session, candidates learn presentation skills, classroom management and teaching methods. They focus on "life skills rather than anti-drugs," Eden said.


Once assigned to a school, some officers continue to perform their normal police duties while teaching on a part-time basis. Other departments make the DARE officer a dedicated, full-time position-often depending on the amount of financial support that the municipality and school district lend.

DARE New Jersey supplies student workbooks free of charge, Eden said. For most schools there is no cost for the program, but many districts use state drug-free grants or other funds to buy extras such as DARE T-shirts or hats.

Whether state or local, the police departments pay the officer's salary. In some areas, the schools reimburse the department for all or part of the cost. The Winslow Township district subsidizes approximately $20,000 of the officer's salary, according to Superintendent Daniel Martin.

***

Kids are aware that drug use is rising, Smith said, and DARE is one of a number of weapons that educators can use to combat it while to raising kids' self-esteem. Although student peer counseling and similar programs also help, she said, DARE fulfills an important function in schools.

"The more you see on TV, you see rock stars and athletes being arrested for drugs," she said. "You're fighting a tough battle.

"Imagine what it would be like if no one was doing anything."