Saturday, August 14, 1999

DARE confronts criticism, seeks improvements




BY AMY CAPPIELLO
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Since its inception in 1983, DARE, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program taught to school-aged children, has provoked controversy.

        Another one erupted recently when a University of Kentucky study claimed the program didn't alter kids' beliefs about drugs. But there may be an up-side: Police departments across the Tristate agree that DARE programs need more work and years of parental involvement.

        Researchers reinterviewed former Lexington students who were involved in a DARE study in 1987-88. Dick Clayton, author of the report, said the DARE students varied little from their non-DARE counterparts.

        Typically, they took a 17-week course in the sixth grade, with no follow-up.

        To the latest criticism of DARE, police departments answered: Should we instead sit idly by?

        “We spend less than 1.5 percent of our budget on it, and we reach 1,200 kids with that small bit of money. I have personally seen it turn around several of them,” said Officer Jeff Witte of Springdale police. “It looks to me like a damn good investment.”

        Both sides agreed that changes could increase DARE's effectiveness and community contribution. The study author has some ideas.

        “It (the UK study) says we are devoting far too much to something that makes adults feel good but doesn't work for the children,” said Mr. Clayton, who works for the Center for Prevention Research at UK. “That doesn't mean we should throw DARE out. It means we have to make it justify the time spent on it by having an affect.”

        Sgt. Caroline Williams, Cincinnati's DARE unit commander for almost two years, admitted the UK study contains some accurate criticism. The message DARE gives to sixth-graders is not sufficient and needs to be reinforced when kids are older and more likely to be tempted by drugs.

        That's why Cincinnati will extend its education program to grades 7 and 8 this year. The Butler and Hamilton County sheriff's departments already bring a small-scale program to high schools.

        Despite its flaws, Sgt. Williams said she is convinced DARE is an effective program that needs to be extended into high school, not have its foundations knocked away.

        “The same thing happens every year. Whenever the fight for the grant money begins, people try to prove that DARE's not working,” Sgt. Williams said. “But they're not out there with these inner-city kids every day like me. I know that this works, and I've seen

        it work on real kids. Build us up, don't knock us down.”

        Mr. Clayton contends, though, that he's not trying to tear down the nationwide drug education program. “The critics aren't sitting here throwing stones at a glass house,” he said. “We're trying to help.”

        The researchers' attempts to highlight the glitches they see with the program have prompted some area police departments to devote serious thought to the program.

        The Florence Police Department has already reviewed its DARE program and is working to make the program more relevant to students. Crescent Springs has discontinued it in favor of Character Counts, a more flexible program that emphasises fairness, responsibility, caring and citizenship.

        Throughout Kentucky and Ohio, police departments on average employ one or two officers who double as DARE instructors. Most teach for only a few hours a week, but some spend every day in the classroom.

        Departments in Kentucky spend an average of $5,000 a year on DARE programs, not including salaries, although costs range from $1,200 in Taylor Mill to $20,000 for the Boone County Police Department.

        Cincinnati spends about $550,000 to keep its 11 full-time DARE officers teaching the program, and the department has recently fought off questions from City Council members who thought the money could be betterspent somewhere else. Most Ohio police departments, however, spend only a small portion of their budget ons DARE.

        Police officers argue that if one child is kept from drugs, the program is worth the time and effort. But Mr. Clayton said that while DARE officers are committed to helping kids, they're so intent on saving the “one child” they may reach that they've lost sight of the thousands who continue to use drugs each year. He recommends revamping the program to address why kids use drugs in the first place.

        DARE officers believe that while they can influence children to steer clear of illegal substances, the program's real success or failure lies in the hands of the community.

        “We try to impress on parents that we have tried to give them choices for the time we're with them,” Dayton, Ky., Police Chief Fred Hildebrant said. “We have them for 17 weeks; parents have them for a lifetime. If the parents don't reinforce the ideas, you're right, DARE isn't going to work.”

        No matter how many studies are released decrying DARE as ineffective, Edgewood Police Chief Steve Vollmar is confident his community's schoolchildren will continue to benefit from it.

        “My community will dictate whether we do a DARE program or not,” he said, “and my community is very high on it.”

        Molly Harper and Tom McCann contributed.

       



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