In December 2001, the Dare Program Review Task Force, chaired by James Conniff, released a very interesting paper on the long term effectiveness of the highly respected DARE (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) program. This report was prepared at the request of the Suffolk County Legislature.
The DARE program has been present in most elementary schools in Suffolk County for over a decade. It was hoped that by placing uniformed police officers in our elementary schools, trained to literally coach in the classroom, there would be an increase in respect for law enforcement and a reduction in long-term drug and alcohol abuse.
Unfortunately, there is no competent empirical data to support that hoped for goal. To the contrary, when surveyed, our high school students confirmed that DARE had little to no impact on their drug and alcohol use.
Clearly, in most of our elementary schools, uniformed police officers had a positive influence on our students. Unfortunately, their long-term effect on student drug use was short lived.
Individual police officers did have a positive long-term effect on the attitudes of young people toward police. However, DARE as a program did not have a long-term influence on student attitudes toward illegal drug and alcohol use. There is other data that clearly indicates there are other programs being used nationally that are more effective educationally and fiscally.
Last year when Commissioner Gallagher suggested that the DARE program needed to be evaluated and possibly eliminated, parents and politicians across the county went wild. People were not listening and still are not listening to what our police commissioner is saying.
He never said that he did not want police officers in our schools or that they should not be a part of a collaborative drug and alcohol education prevention effort. What he is suggesting is that the implementation of the DARE program is very costly to the taxpayer and it is clearly not delivering the desired outcome it was created to bring about.
We must remember that our police commissioner is an experienced educator who has some hands on experience and tested insight in this arena.
Most of the recommendations of the Task Force Report, from my experience, are right on the mark if you are looking to create a positive educational experience that will hopefully bring about a reduction in reckless, illegal drug and alcohol use among high school students.
Commissioner Gallagher, from day one, has clearly affirmed his desire to leave uniformed officers in our schools. What he is urging is that we use them more effectively. His research and that of the Task Force resoundly concludes that leaving police officers in our elementary schools is a poor use of valued law enforcement, if we are looking to influence long-term drug and alcohol use among middle school and high school students.
If our only desired result is a positive attitude towards police, then leave things as they are. However, that is a very costly personnel decision. These valued personnel could do so much more if they were placed in high schools and middle schools and used differently.
There is another point that the Task Force makes which is critical and has been poorly addressed by many school districts across the county.
The Report recommends that police officers only be assigned to school districts that have a comprehensive K-12 drug and alcohol education prevention program involving students, parents, community and school personnel. That condition is key. Part of the failure in this area is that our efforts are fragmented and at best minimal. Some districts don't even have a real program of prevention, even on paper.
If we are serious about drug and alcohol education, it must be a collaborative effort that is comprehensive in scope. Everyone from the School Board President to the Superintendent down to the maintenance personnel have to buy into the effort, or the program will ultimately be an exercise in futility.
Contrary to what many might want to believe, illegal drug and alcohol use is on the rise. It is starting at a younger age and is touching a wider cross section of our student body. Student attitudes are constantly changing. A growing number of students believe that as long as they are respectful, do well in school and cooperate at home, what is so bad if they drink socially on weekends and use various drugs recreationally.
Part of what has caused this attitude is our ineffective education, our incorrect information and our blatant inconsistency. We are still teaching as facts, materials that are grossly incorrect.
If we really care about our students and their total wellness, we need to make their growth and development, academically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, a priority that is more than rhetoric. It needs to be grounded in action.
The Task Force recommendations are challenging, but "do-able." Let's not get stuck in the politics. Let's do what will be best for our children.
Over the last eighteen years, I have had the privilege of speaking in every Suffolk County public high school with the exception of two. Our schools are doing exceptional things for our young people. However, like schools across the country, they continue to wrestle with the increased use of illegal drugs and alcohol.
The DARE program has been a gift to our elementary schools. The police officers involved have done an excellent job, but the program design is incomplete. It is not structured to do what really needs to be done. We need to change the attitudes and behaviors among our older teenagers. Unfortunately, DARE has not achieved that.
There are many national programs that have the empirical data to support their effectiveness as a comprehensive K-12 approach to drug and alcohol use reduction.
Wellness education should be a priority concern for all of us. Our schools should be the centerpiece of every community. They should be our national treasure, not a wasteland of human potential.
Ask for a copy of the Task Report. Read it carefully. Hopefully the Legislature won't sit on it, but rather will do what they were elected for - to lead us. They need to act on the Task Report's recommendations. Now!