Meriden eliminating DARE program, adding officer to city schools

MERIDEN — The city will eliminate its long-running Drug Abuse Resistance Education program for fifth-graders and replace it with a police officer for elementary schools.

Police Chief Jeffry Cossette said Wednesday that the elimination won’t leave a void in alcohol, drug, and safety education, as the schools already have “redundant material between the DARE classes and the health classes.”

In a written statement, Cossette said, “After the Sandy Hook tragedy, we conducted a security assessment within all of our schools, including the elementary schools. It was apparent that a void existed in regards to our presence within the eight elementary schools. I have decided to redirect our efforts from the DARE program to a full-time elementary school resource officer.”

DARE has been in the city public and parochial schools for more than 20 years, with police officers educating fifth-grade students about drugs, alcohol, gangs and violence.

“This is something I’ve been considering for a while now,” Cossette said.

Five police officers, called school resource officers, work in the city’s schools — one in each of the three high schools, and one in each of the two middle schools.

The new plan will add a sixth school resource officer who will rotate among the city’s eight elementary schools.

Assistant School Superintendent Robert Angeli said Wednesday, “We appreciate the partnership we have with the police department here. In that vein, if the police feel that this change is going to be beneficial for their interaction with the schools as well as their contact with the children and parents of the community, then it’s worth taking a look at.”

City Councilor Kevin Scarpati, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he worked with Cossette to develop the plan.

“I don’t necessarily look at it as cutting the DARE program, but enhancing what’s already in place,” Scarpati said.

“I do know that the DARE program is a very popular program with parents, students, and educators,” Angeli said. “It’s shifted its focus recently, where it’s not strictly on drug and alcohol prevention, but it’s about making good decisions as well. I think as long as we don’t lose that piece, we’re heading in the right direction.”

Cossette said a school resource officer will be able to deal with issues typically not handled by DARE officers, including traffic and family matters.

“We have a huge issue with traffic at the elementary schools,” Cossette said.

The elementary school resource officer will be in charge of “establishing and maintaining safe traffic patterns for buses, parent drop-off, and pedestrians,” Cossette said. Police are meeting next week with school officials and the city’s traffic engineering staff to assess the traffic patterns.

Both Scarpati and Cossette said teachers and administrators at the elementary schools encounter more parent- and family-based issues than their counterparts at the middle and high schools.

“At the elementary schools, they deal more with custody and domestic issues,” Scarpati said. “If a parent comes to the school to pick up their child, and they’re not supposed to, you’ll have an officer there to assist, not just an administrator.”

Ultimately, Cossette said the plan should “do more with what we have.”

“DARE is 13 hours of education throughout the school year,” he said. “What we’re doing here is a better way to utilize the resources we have.” (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @MollCal

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