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County eyes new drug program

The School Board is set to vote today on a localized replacement for DARE, a program used to teach students about drugs and alcohol.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


INVERNESS -- From its role-playing exercises on how to deflect peer pressure to its lesson plans and graduation ceremonies, the DARE program for six years has been the main way Citrus County students have been taught to avoid drug and alcohol use.

Now, local law enforcement and school officials have developed a replacement called FOCUS (Filtering Out Crime United with Students), which grew out of the student crime watch program of the same name begun several years ago.

The curriculum for the new program has been written by the school resource officers, the same people who will be teaching it to students.

Under a plan the School Board will consider today, fifth-grade students would be taught 10 45-minute lessons similar to the drug and alcohol lessons taught through DARE, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education. The lessons also include citizenship, violence, gangs, self-esteem and assertiveness.

The DARE program, which is copyrighted, was developed in 1983 in California. Law enforcement officials specially certified for DARE have taught the curriculum, which is regulated in the state by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

But local school resource officers and student services officials determined that the rigidity of the DARE program might not be what Citrus students need.

"We're replacing DARE," said Bonnie Hardiman, director of student services. "DARE was a very specific program. It didn't allow for modification with more of local emphasis, and that's what we want."

"We wanted something unique to Citrus County," said Citrus Sheriff's Lt. James Martone, who oversees the school resource officer program. "It got to the point where we wanted to try something fresh ... And I think we've designed something that I think will be very user-friendly."

The school resource officers focused on a variety of areas in writing the lesson plans, which include drugs, conflict resolution and gun safety and updated information that hadn't been changed in the DARE curriculum for years.

According to the materials Hardiman provided to the School Board, the DARE program has not been updated and doesn't reflect the recent trends in both drug use and violence.

"The Citrus County School Resource Officers developed the FOCUS program," a memo states. "The individual lessons can be modified, updated and enhanced to reflect new trends and reflect the concerns and needs of Citrus County, Florida."

Another benefit of developing a program locally is that it can be flexible to allow changes if certain areas don't seem to work as well as others.

Local officials have also been critical of the level of overview the DARE program has gotten. While the officers are certified to teach DARE, "the evaluation of existing DARE officers is inconsistent and unstructured," according to Hardiman's memo to the board. That will change since the Citrus County Sheriff's Office will monitor the program.

Another benefit to a locally developed program is the ability to find better prices for program supplies in the future. Because DARE merchandise is available through just three corporations, the district can't seek competitive bids, do business locally or avoid shipping costs.

But in the short run, cost is one of the drawbacks of the new program.

Officials estimate the overall annual cost of FOCUS to be as high as $18,900 possibly with additional one-time start-up costs, but according to Martone, the Sheriff's Office will pick up the cost of those start-up expenses. DARE costs the district about $11,600.

Another drawback Hardiman notes in her memo is that FOCUS does not have the national name recognition that the DARE program has enjoyed.

Martone said he saw real benefits from the new program as something that the district's school resource officers want to do.

"We don't want to be security guards," he said. "We want to teach. We want to counsel and change some of these kids' focus."

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