August 25, 2014 03:36PM
By Mary Ellen Godin
A growing number of cities, including Meriden, are choosing to eliminate the once popular Drug Abuse Resistance Program.
Earlier this month, Meriden Police Jeffry Cossette said the long-running DARE program for fifth-graders will be replaced with a police officer for the elementary schools. Cossette said he feels the change won’t leave a void in alcohol, drug and safety education, as the schools have “redundant material between the DARE classes and the health classes.”
Cossette reviewed security at all city schools after the Sandy Hook school shooting and felt there was a need for a police officer assigned to the eight elementary schools. He decided to redirect DARE funds to a full-time elementary school resource officer. 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. Cossette’s plan will add a sixth school resource officer who will rotate among the elementary schools.
DARE has been in the 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 in a prepared statement last week.
The number of schools and municipalities partnering with DARE has steadily declined. According to a 2012 study, about 60 percent of school districts have eliminated DARE since the mid- 2000s, in the 32 states where data is available.
Southington continues its DARE program. A central reason is to introduce and reinforce a positive relationship with police while teaching good decision making.
“To have a police officer in the schools and talking to them gets the students to know the police are friendly, approachable and cooperative,” said Richard Montague, chairman of the Southington Board of Police Commissioners. “An officer can show students we’re not out to punish the public. The earlier you start that the sooner students start to listen.”
Southington DARE officer Thomas Gallo said the DARE curriculum has changed.
“It’s about how to avoid making bad decisions on a wide range of topics,” Gallo said. “We’re talking about peer pressure and you’re still making that connection with the kids in the classroom and on a one-to-one basis for 11 weeks. You’re talking to them at lunch and at recess. It has a lot of benefits.”
Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni supported DARE last year when police were considering eliminating it. But Benigni is satisfied that an officer in the elementary schools will also help.
“The DARE program is valuable because it allows our students to build positive relationships with the police,” Benigni said. “I am confident that the new police structure will continue to provide opportunities for our students to build those same essential relationships. Our health classes will continue to feature drug resistance curriculum and instruction.”
Gallo supports the school resource officer program and is convinced a combination of DARE and a school resource officer is the best option at the elementary level. Southington has a police officer at the high school and another that rotates between the middle and elementary schools.
Wallingford eliminated its DARE program in 2010. Other programs have been used to teach students about drug awareness.
The town does not have school resource officers but does have two community police officers whose duties include helping the schools with truancy and other issues. The town also has two youth officers that work with the school system providing social services.
Rich Figlewski, who runs the Dry Dock, a drug and alcohol support center downtown, said DARE reinforces an anti-drug message for children who are heading in that direction. But he is not sure one of DARE’s central messages works for those prone to drug use.
“ ‘Just say no’ has never worked,” he said.
Figlewski brings recovering addicts when he visits schools. Instead of “just saying no,” he tells students there are consequences to their choices and actions.
“I tell them your opportunities become more and more limited,” Figlewski said. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”
Former Meriden DARE officer Thomas Cirillo said changes in the DARE curriculum have made it more beneficial to students than ever before.
He doesn’t agree with the city’s decision to eliminate it.
“All DARE officers are certified school resource officers,” Cirillo said.
Cirillo led the city’s DARE program for 26 years and at one time had two officers to handle eight schools.
“We dealt with traffic and principals,” Cirillo said. “All a principal had to do was call. I don’t see where he (the chief) thinks its going to be better.”
Cirillo’s heard some of the criticism about DARE and thinks the studies and comments are outdated and uninformed.
Over the past decade, DARE has transitioned to a new curriculum called “Keepin it Real.”
The program has made the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s list of evidence-based drug prevention programs.
In 2012, the Department of Justice determined that “Keepin’ it Real” is promising because the program seemed to lower alcohol and marijuana use and improve resistance skills, but their review also found that these positive outcomes often fade over time, according to DARE.procon.org.
“How do you measure success?” Cirillo asked. “Two years after I retired, I’ve had adults and kids coming to me telling me how great the program was. The chief, the city council, the city manager, they don’t see that. How many have ever been to a DARE graduation?”
Cirillo fears students will lose the connection to the police and the lessons on making good decisions under the new program, adding that DARE can be paid for through a program that allows police to seize money and property from those charged with crimes.
“Who better knows about bullying than a police officer? Cirillo said. “We see it everyday. We see drugs every day. Our training to prepare a DARE officer to be in that classroom is second to none. We are trained by teachers. Kids today don’t have a lot of role models. I was a role model to a lot of kids.”