Lt. Brenda Patterson has heard it all before, the questions about alcohol and marijuana: "What if someone tries to ?" "How do I say no to ?" As the ranking officer of the DARE program, Patterson has answered these and similar questions from elementary school students since 1994 when the Memphis Police Department began teaching the program in Memphis City Schools.
DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is designed to teach fifth- and sixth-graders about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. The program was developed by a Los Angeles police chief in 1983 as a tool in the government's war on drugs. In its 20-year existence, the program has evolved into the most extensive anti-drug program, taught to more than 26 million American children in 80 percent of school districts across the country. DARE's curriculum is developed by educators and consists of 17 hour-long weekly sessions taught by certified police officers to exit-level elementary students. The program is funded by police departments' Vice and Narcotics squads from drug-seizure money and by grants.
As for Memphis' program, the number of officers teaching the program has not changed much, growing from the original eight trained officers in 1994 to nine officers this year. But the number of children served has dramatically increased to about 2,000 students completing the program each semester. According to MPD's finance administrator Chuck Fox, about $50,000 of Vice and Narcotics funds were used this school year, and general funds of about $420,000 will be needed to pay for officers' salaries, fuel, and other administrative supplies for the upcoming year.
One key of the DARE program is its consistency. "Through the years the questions [asked by students] have not changed very much," said Patterson. "Kids still see the same drugs on the streets and are introduced to them in much the same ways." While officers are recertified with the newest drug information each year, the message of the program has remained saying no to drugs and meaning it.
Although DARE is a favorite with police forces and teachers, reports dating back more than 10 years have criticized the program as having no real effect on students' drug habits. The latest report, completed by the General Accounting Office in January, stated that the program has had "no statistically significant long-term effect on preventing youth illicit drug use." The report was based on several studies comparing DARE students to students who had not participated in the program. Critics have also found fault with the program for its "gateway" method of teaching. The program teaches that using soft drugs like cigarettes can be a "gateway" to harder drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine.
"The studies that [critics] are using are old," said Officer Jackie Sykes at MPD's DARE spring culmination. Sykes heads the Tennessee DARE Officers Association, an organization of more than 196 officers statewide involved in teaching the program in 128 state school systems. "The curriculum is refreshed each year, and officers are still making quite an impact on Tennessee's children."
Nevertheless, beginning in the fall, DARE will draw back to a 10-week program, allowing students to complete more work on their own without officers and, more importantly, conserving national and local government budget dollars. "We would like to be in more schools, but without the manpower, we simply can't," said Patterson. "I know the officers are effective. They're dedicated to these children and are good influences. The officers in this office don't get the recognition they deserve."
While other cities have forgone DARE, citing its ineffectiveness or budget constraints, or even traded the program for other anti-drug curriculums, MPD extended its training to include the GREAT program. Gang Resistance Education and Training began in Phoenix in 1991 and made its Memphis debut in 1995 with four certified officers. Currently, all nine officers are cross-trained for both DARE and GREAT. GREAT is a 14-week program taught in seventh- grade classes and funded nationally by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and through a state board of education grant. DARE officers teaching in elementary schools are often paired to teach the GREAT program in the junior high feeder schools. As with the drug program, GREAT's numbers have increased to include 16 schools.
Last Friday, 2,022 students gathered at Christ the Rock Metro Church for the spring semester culmination. More than 20 schools were represented during the program, which included everything from a color guard unit, steppers, and essay readings. Keynote speaker and MPD director James Bolden discussed courage and pledged his and the department's continued support of the program. "I dare you to develop the courage to say no to drugs," Bolden challenged the students. "Do you accept the dare?" As the DARE class of 2003 recited the DARE pledge to uphold the program's ideals, be role models, and remain drug- and violence-free, Patterson was already planning her unit's next step: broaden the program to include more schools and use high school students as role models.
"I've enjoyed this job since I've been here. It can be a challenge working with children, but I think we're reaching them," said Patterson. "We measure our successes in feedback from the students and teachers, and they want us back every year."