DARE is positive effort that needs support

Saturday, January 11, 2003

It's discouraging for Cape Girardeau police officer Jeff Bonham to look at the last of his DARE supplies. The last pencils. The last workbooks. The last bumper stickers.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol funds the DARE program statewide, and recent funding cuts have prompted the patrol to stop providing supplies for DARE, which stands for Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education. Obviously, if it comes to funding DARE, which provides anti-drug education to youngsters in school, or working accidents on the state's highways, the second responsibility is going to win out.

The DARE program began in 1987 in Los Angeles and quickly swept across the nation as authorities sought a solution to an insidious problem.

A grant helped pay for the DARE supplies throughout Missouri starting in 1989 to the tune of $840,000, but the amount has dropped ever since, down to $200,000 for 2002.

Cape Girardeau began teaching DARE classes in 1991. The program focuses on the issues concerning drug abuse -- the part that comes before kids "just say no," such as self-esteem, communication skills and decision making.

Bonham teaches 600 children each year: sixth-graders at all Cape Girardeau public schools, St. Vincent's Junior High School, St. Mary's Parish Center and Trinity Lutheran School and all fifth-graders at Nell Holcomb School.

Local attitudes are positive about the program -- various T-shirts, bumper stickers and whatnot with the slogan "DARE to keep kids off drugs" are all over Southeast Missouri. But nationwide, there have been studies showing that DARE hasn't actually reduced the numbers of children using drugs. Some critics have called it a "feel-good failure," and some children have called the program "corny." Community after community has dumped the program.

That's short-sighted. Consider that the war on drugs overall has been unsuccessful. Consider the billions of state and federal dollars pumped into the war on drugs and whether that's decreased, for example, the number of meth labs in Southeast Missouri by any measurable amount. Indeed, Missouri claimed the U.S. meth capital title last year.

Clearly, if any approach can prevail in this war, it's the one that starts with young children. Imagine what would be going on in the world of illicit drugs if DARE hadn't been in place for the last decade.

And organizers are changing the program, aiming to be more in tune with students and their parents. It is being streamlined from 17 to 10 weeks, too.

In the meantime, highway patrol officials at the state level are looking for more money in the upcoming budget but realize that's unlikely. Bonham has been turned from a teacher to a fund raiser, trying to get local dollars to keep DARE going.

It is a worthy investment, perhaps the only one that can help until every parent chooses to take over the issue at home. For more information, call Bonham at 335-6621, extension 1170.

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