NAPLES — The Palmetto Elementary School students bounded to the front of their fifth-grade classroom two-by-two, each coming under friendly questioning from Collier County sheriff’s Cpl. Sandra Doria.

Cassie Figga, wearing a D.A.R.E. T-shirt and red headband, took the situation in stride.

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“You’re hanging out at Hollywood 20,” Doria said. “After the movie, a pack of cigarettes is passed around. What do you say?”

“First,” Figga said, sizing up the question, “I would tell them that’s not a very good idea, and then I’d go tell a manager.”

Such responses are part of the reason why Collier County schools have stuck with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, even as other departments across the state cut it from classrooms and researchers continue to debate whether it’s a waste of students’ time. About 3,000 fifth-graders go through the 10-week program each year in Collier County, which the state’s D.A.R.E. coordinator calls “a model” for other counties.

“This comes from the perspective of both a law enforcement officer and a parent — I’m not going to sit here and do nothing,” Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said. “I don’t care what their studies say. I’m going to do what I think we should be doing to mentor and prevent drug abuse.”

Florida’s D.A.R.E. programs have fallen victim in recent years to budget cuts and demands to meet standardized testing goals. Accurate records aren’t kept on the number of D.A.R.E. classes taught each year in Florida, but several large agencies, including the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, have ended their affiliation.

“When I meet with sheriffs and police chiefs, they would love to be able to continue it,” said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Inspector Steve Emerson, who coordinates statewide D.A.R.E. training. “Unfortunately, due to the economic challenges, they have to put many of their people back on the road rather than having them working in school resource areas or doing D.A.R.E.”

Long maligned by opponents as ineffective and possibly damaging to kids, D.A.R.E. has its supporters who say a new curriculum has been proven to deter drug and alcohol use. Rambosk said now is the time to be bolstering anti-drug efforts, not cutting back.

“We need to spend a lot more time on it,” Rambosk said. “I would rather invest that time now than deal with the drug problems later.”

A history of criticism

Developed in 1983, the D.A.R.E. program now is taught in an estimated 75 percent of school districts.

After more than a decade of development, D.A.R.E. came under attack starting in the mid-1990s.

The National Institute of Justice called the program well-supported by the public but largely ineffective. The U.S. Surgeon General said D.A.R.E. “does not work.” Dozens of researchers found it had little to no effect on future drug use, with a minority saying it led kids to drugs who would have otherwise stayed drug-free.

In 2009, University of Cincinnati professor Wei Pan analyzed the results of 20 studies on D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness conducted between 1985 and 1999, finding it likely doesn’t deter drug use but has other benefits.

“The D.A.R.E. program is more effective on students’ psychological outcomes, giving them confidence and family bonds,” Pan said in a recent phone interview. “But on the actual drug use later on when they’re a few years older, we did not see the decrease that we expected. Some studies even show an increase compared to areas without this program.”

D.A.R.E. spokesman Ralph Lochridge argued that “100 percent” of the negative reports were authored by researchers with their own drug-awareness businesses on the side, giving them incentive to disparage the nonprofit D.A.R.E.

“Most of them are flawed studies and they also have an agenda to show D.A.R.E. is not effective, so the district can buy their for-profit program,” Lochridge said.

In recent years, D.A.R.E. has evolved with a new curriculum developed by Penn State University researchers called “Keepin’ It REAL,” which D.A.R.E. officials said has been proven to reduce drug use among elementary and middle school students. Sections on pill abuse, bullying and Internet safety have been added, and the system is more interactive than past curricula.

Survey says

D.A.R.E. proponents argue the program’s effects extend beyond research statistics.

For some students, it’s the first positive introduction to law enforcement. Reasoning skills and ways to avoid bad situations are passed along, supporters said.

“It’s not just about the drugs,” Emerson, the FDLE inspector, said. “We’re teaching them to make good decisions and wise choices.”

Whether these messages influence local students is debatable. The most commonly cited measuring stick — Florida’s Youth Substance Abuse Survey — suggests some marginal anti-drug gains have been made, though there’s no difference made over time in most areas.

When comparing Collier County survey results from 2000 and 2010, it’s shown that:

The same percentage of teens likely consumed alcohol at least once ( 52 percent ), though fewer have had it in the past month, dropping from 33 percent to 30 percent.

Fewer students are smoking cigarettes, with 37 percent having tried a cigarette in 2000 compared to 29 percent in 2010.

Illicit drugs are being used at the same rate ( about 31 percent have used at least one in their lifetime ).

More students see alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana as “cool.” The share of students who called drinking regularly “cool” is up from 8 percent to 14 percent, and the share who called smoking marijuana “cool” doubled, up 13.2 percent in 2010.

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Rambosk said the survey data provides a limited picture on drug use among teens, but it’s the best snapshot of the county available.

“All it gives us is some sense of what the kids are talking about,” Rambosk said. “It’s a small part, and if there were elements that showed a very significant increase, we should be jumping right on that.”

Fighting for support

Despite the deluge of anti-D.A.R.E. research in the past decade and a half, police and school administrators have largely stood by the program. Supporters say it’s because D.A.R.E. works. Detractors counter that administrators and parents are fooling themselves into a false sense of security.

It wasn’t until recently that statewide D.A.R.E. backing has dropped.

Schools don’t pay for deputies to teach classes, leaving labor costs to local police. As a result, the number of police agencies staffing D.A.R.E. classes has fallen from 66 to 46 in the past two years, though Emerson expects a small bump this academic year. In Collier County alone, 18 deputies spent more than 1,000 hours in fifth-grade classrooms last year, with $30,000 in workbook and T-shirt costs.

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Lee County stopped funding D.A.R.E. in 2009 for budgetary reasons, saving an estimated $220,000. At the time, Sheriff Mike Scott called it “the most regrettable cut” out of the $5.6 million trimmed from his budget. There are no plans to bring it back.

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It’s too early to measure the effect that D.A.R.E.’s absence has had on students, Lee County sheriff’s Lt. Larry King said.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything dramatic change in this short time,” King said.

The possibility of increased alcohol, cigarette and drug use is a chance Rambosk doesn’t want to take in Collier County.

“I’m not sure why other people have cut back on it, but the very first thing we want is a very strong drug prevention effort and philosophy,” he said.

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News Hawk – 420 Warrior 420 MAGAZINE
Source: Marco Eagle (FL)
Author: Jacob Carpenter
Contact: (239)213-5382
Copyright: 2011 The E.W. Scripps Co.
Website: Marco Eagle: Local Marco Island, Florida News Delivered Throughout the Day.