DARE programs are being cut from some local districts, while expanding to more classrooms in others

Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Cape Girardeau police officer A.C. Walker discusses the dangers of alcohol with the students in her DARE class Tuesday at Central Middle School. (Fred Lynch)

While some Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs in Missouri school districts are expanding -- even reaching new student audiences -- other districts are struggling and have been forced to cut the course.

The Jackson School District, which in previous years brought in a police officer to teach its middle school students, cut DARE from its curriculum this academic year.

Jackson superintendent Ron Anderson said the district didn't cut DARE, a program known for teaching students certain skills to avoiding negative behavior, because of its effectiveness but because of budget constraints. A grant had previously covered the cost of DARE for the district, but without the grant it paid around $35,000, according to Anderson.

"I think it was pretty straight forward, you know, it was a budget issue," he said. "All entities are looking at staffing and where they can adjust and move forward to get through this period of time."

Jackson Police Department Lt. Rodney Barnes, who taught DARE for three years in the district, said while the program is effective in teaching the dangers of drugs, alcohol and violence, its main benefit was the positive interaction students have with law enforcement.

A lesson book is provided to DARE students at Central Middle School. (Fred Lynch)

Barnes recalled the use of a DARE box, which allowed students to ask an officer questions anonymously.

"Every question in that box was answered," Barnes said. "It's a great program. It's unfortunate it wasn't able to continue."

Without monetary contributions from area businesses and civic organizations, Cape Girardeau DARE officer A.C. Walker said her program, which serves thousands of students in 11 schools, would be at risk of being cut, too.

"We used to get government funding for the program; we are 100 percent donations now," said Walker, who took over DARE in Cape Girardeau two years ago.

Each year there are many repeat donors and this year, the VFW was one of the businesses who made a significant donation to the program. Walker said she's just happy to have the community's support.

"It takes a lot of leg work, getting out there and letting people know DARE is still here and still works," Walker said.

Walker's lesson plans for her DARE students vary based on the grade level and issues the school may be having that year. Walker said last year the Central Middle School was seeing a problem with prescription drug abuse and Internet-safety-related issues.

"I'm having more gang-related issues this year and a lot more marijuana issues than normal," Walker said. "We even get to talking about guns, because they want to know. I don't want them to get curious and then decide to do it when they could have just asked and got the curiosity out of their head then."

Walker leads discussions at the sixth-grade level at the middle school and also at various grade levels at in the Nell Holcomb School District, at Trinity Lutheran School, Cape Christian School, St. Mary's and several other area schools. At each school Walker visits in Cape Girardeau, the course lasts at least 10 weeks. Her course often hits 14 weeks, though, she said, because the students always want to know more.

She teaches a DARE course titled "Keeping It Real" for eighth-grade students that includes topics like huffing, gang-violence and Internet bullying. Walker makes sure the students are aware of safe ways to use networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace and their cell phone -- if they've been allowed the privilege by their parents. The course doesn't leave out DARE's central message, which is to provide students with skills to refuse offers to use drugs or engage in other high-risk behaviors.

Walker said she is able to connect with students on a different level than most DARE officers because her parents struggled with drug abuse and violence. Her father was murdered by a rival gang member when she was an a toddler.

Walker said she shares her story with the students and asks them what they think happened to the child involved. They never guess, she said, that the story is about her.

"I tell them 'When I talk to you about this, I know exactly how it feels,'" she said. "I'm very real with my kids, because I understand the pain that goes with it."

Recently, at the school's request, Walker brought her DARE program to the sixth- and seventh-graders at the Cape Girardeau Alternative Education Center, where students have had the chance to view a police officer in a different light. Walker has had two classes with the students so far this school year and she said she's already noticed a change in their attitude. She's at the alternative school once a week for 60 minutes.

"These are kids who, when I initially started coming, they thought it was funny to have weed, wear gang-affiliated clothing and to talk about what they've seen," she said. "When I come in now, after they learned my story, they don't think it's so funny anymore. I'm taken more seriously."

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent Address:

215 N. Louisiana St., Cape Girardeau, MO

40 S. Sprigg St., Cape Girardeau, MO

330 N. Spring Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

1651 W. Independence St., Jackson, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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