By Tom Roebuck

June 11, 2010 5 min read

Along with the challenges of mastering reading, writing and arithmetic, students also have to deal with outside influences that can threaten not only their education but also their entire future. Regardless of which side of the tracks they live on, children are exposed to the dangers of drug, alcohol and tobacco use, gang violence and other perils. Equipping students with the tools to resist these temptations has become a vital part of an effective education.

Keeping kids safe and drug-free has been the mission of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program since its inception, in 1983. Concerned that his officers were spending almost all of their time with drug-related crime, then-Los Angeles police Chief Daryl Gates started the program as a collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The idea was to have uniformed officers visit elementary-school classes to get to know the students and teach them techniques on just saying "no" to drugs.

The concept proved popular with all those involved and began to expand -- and never stopped. Now in all 50 states and 43 other countries, D.A.R.E. has become an education icon. It has been estimated that 80 percent of all U.S. school districts are in the D.A.R.E. program, reaching 26 million students. Along with expanding geographically, it has grown to include middle- and high-school students.

"The original curriculum was solely an elementary-school curriculum," says Frank Pegueros, executive director and chief operating officer of D.A.R.E. America. "And subsequently, middle-school and high-school components were created, as well as what was called at the time a parent education component."

As the program grew, it also evolved. The parent education component, in which parents would visit the classroom, was scaled back from an eight-lesson program to single, stand-alone lessons. D.A.R.E.'s primary mission began as a substance abuse prevention program and soon added gangs and violence to the curriculum. As more students became involved, so did the issues that D.A.R.E. addressed.

"Our current mission is to provide students with good decision-making skills to help them lead healthy and safe lives," Pegueros says.

As new issues were added, the number of lessons in the curriculum grew from 10 to 17. When issue No. 18 arose, D.A.R.E. knew it had to re-evaluate, as the number of weeks in the school year could only support so many lessons. In 2007, a new elementary-school curriculum was implemented and included enhancement lessons on bullying, Internet security, over-the-counter drugs, inhalants and other challenges kids face today.

"We decided to treat emerging issues separately rather than try to incorporate them in the core curriculum," Pegueros says. "A community and its D.A.R.E. instructor can present the 10 base lessons for the curriculum, and from a battery of enhancement lessons, they can select topics that are appropriate for their community."

The enhancement lessons not only allow a community to tailor the program to its needs but also enable D.A.R.E. to address new topics soon after they arise, keeping the curriculum current. The role of the D.A.R.E. instructor also changed in 2007. Rather than stand in front of the class the entire lesson as a lecturer, the instructor now acts as a facilitator.

"The kids work in small cooperative learning groups. The officer provides them certain concrete information, and the kids, among themselves, work out the problems and solutions. They're pretty sophisticated," Pegueros says.

Detective Barbara Daquino, a D.A.R.E. instructor since 2002, says the new curriculum works well for both her and the students.

"It's more kid-oriented, so they participate a lot more," Daquino says. "So it's not like we're just standing there preaching to them. We get them involved in the conversation, and they work among themselves."

In 2009, a new middle-school curriculum was introduced and given a catchy name, "keepin' it REAL." It's a science- and evidence-based curriculum developed by Penn State University and the University of Arizona and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. One tool it uses is a series of videos that feature real students discussing how they were able to use the strategies to reject drugs and gangs.

Though D.A.R.E. continues to change with the times, its core mission of helping kids make healthy choices is still intact and unlikely to change. Daquino says she frequently sees former students who tell her that they look back on their D.A.R.E. days fondly.

"It feels good when they approach you and tell you it's a great program," she says. "The kids love it."

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