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Anti-drug classes branching out
By TAMARA LUSH
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000
HUDSON -- Dressed in her red and white striped cashier's uniform, Paula LeFevre stopped at Northwest Elementary school on her way to work at the Winn-Dixie supermarket.
"DARE motivates them to know to say no to drugs," LeFevre said.
And judging by the 70 parents at the morning graduation -- more than any in recent memory, according to school officials -- many think the program helps kids make better choices later in life.
Pasco law enforcement personnel agree: In September, DARE will be expanded to reach fifth-graders at nine schools, instead of eight. In Zephyrhills, officials are applying for a federal grant to pay for two new police officers whose duties would include teaching DARE to first- through fourth-graders. Currently, two Zephyrhills officers teach DARE to fifth-graders in two schools.
This comes at a time when law enforcement agencies and school boards across the country are scaling back or eliminating the program.
DARE is taught worldwide, with a curriculum that uses local police officers to show kids the dangers of substance abuse and violence.
But several national studies have found DARE's material is ineffective. Research released by the University of Kentucky in 1999 said that DARE has little lasting impact. Researchers also showed that the 17-week program doesn't really deter children from drinking, smoking or doing drugs.
The Kentucky study looked at 1,002 sixth-graders who went through DARE or a standard drug-education program in the late 1980s. The researchers did follow-up interviews when the students were 20 and found that there was no difference in drug use -- or attitudes toward drug use -- between those students who graduated from DARE and those who didn't. "Although the DARE intervention produced a few initial improvements in the students' attitudes toward drug use, these changes did not persist over time," the Kentucky researchers wrote.
Denise Hallfors, a University of North Carolina researcher who has also studied the DARE program, said law enforcement and educators like the program because it is inexpensive. Funding for DARE usually comes in the form of grants from the federal government.
"DARE has done a masterful marketing program," Hallfors told the Times.
School administrators and law enforcement in Pasco insist that the program works, and point to the enthusiasm of the kids as proof. There also is an added benefit: DARE allows kids to get to know officers in a non-confrontational, friendly way -- a point that is well-taken by Hallfors.
"It's a good thing to have a police officer to tell fifth-graders not to use substances. There may well be a role for police officer in high and middle schools," she said. "Maybe the proper role for the police officer is the traditional role. I personally do believe that there is a role for police officers, just not for the DARE program."
Plus, said Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon, there's no way to prove that the program is ineffective.
"Any time you educate, there is a benefit," Cannon said. "If we educate children to the dangers of drugs, there has to be a benefit."
Making a difference
Much of the program's success in Pasco, administrators say, comes from the woman who has taught the program for the past six years.
As a teacher in Tampa, Sarah Jane Pendergrass saw children and the endless possibilities that stretched before them. She switched careers, and, as an undercover narcotics deputy, she saw only the obstacles that stood in the way of all those possibilities.
As a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer, Pendergrass thinks she's giving kids important tools to overcome those obstacles.
"When kids don't make the right choice, it's not because they didn't know better," she says of her DARE students.
For the past six years, Pendergrass has been the sole teacher of the DARE curriculum in eight Pasco schools. Next year, the program will expand to nine schools, but Pendergrass will not teach all of the classes.
Next year, she will become a School Resource Officer for three schools, where she will also teach the DARE program. Pendergrass also teaches DARE training to other officers and will train two new Pasco resource officers, who then will split DARE responsibilities among six other schools.
"Cpl. Pendergrass has such a high level of credibility," said Northwest principal Renee Sedlack. "Children enjoy her classes, and children believe what she tells them."
For a recent graduate school project, Sedlack studied the DARE program and the research against it. Sedlack said she, too, found that the studies don't show a significant difference in drug use between students who had gone through the program and students who hadn't.
Still, Sedlack believes in DARE.
"It brings to the forefront the issues that kids will face," she said. "This is something the kids are all interested in hearing about."
Learning how to say 'no'
Last week, Pendergrass held her 50th DARE graduation at Northwest Elementary. About 115 fifth-graders completed the program and received T-shirts and certificates. It's scheduled to be the last DARE class at Northwest, because it's not one of the nine schools where the program will be offered next year.
This is disappointing, said Sedlack. "I just don't feel right about not having DARE," she said.
Districtwide, about 450 fifth-graders graduated from the DARE program under Pendergrass this spring. Each DARE class is essentially the same; the program was created in 1983 in Los Angeles and is now taught in all 50 states and dozens of countries.
During the 17 sessions, students are asked to role-play about how to say no if someone asks them to do drugs. Pendergrass talks to the kids about various methods of saying no, the most abused drugs and peer pressure. They also complete a DARE workbook and, in the final week, write an essay about what they learned.
At the recent graduation, 11-year-old Samantha Slusak was chosen to read her final DARE essay to the other fifth-graders at Northwest.
In a tiny voice, she told them that doing drugs causes people to lose family members, get cancer and die. As her mother watched, Samantha also addressed any skeptics of DARE in the audience.
"If it can help even a few of us, it is a worthwhile program," she said.
The Northwest students smiled and nodded.
The children took the ceremony seriously -- many girls wore new dresses and folded their T-shirts neatly, while the boys proudly slipped their DARE T-shirts over their heads immediately after Pendergrass handed them over.
Mike Paone videotaped his 11-year-old daughter, Heather, receiving her T-shirt and certificate, and he was effusive in his praise for Pendergrass and DARE.
"It's a great program," he said. "It gives them a heads-up on middle school and teaches them to ask questions, and that makes us more comfortable."
-- Tamara Lush is the police reporter in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6245. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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