Tuesday night in Soldotna, 280 fifth- and sixth-graders from five elementary schools reached the milestone of graduation from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. The annual "culmination ceremony," as it is known, followed one last month in Kenai, and it precedes next week's ceremony for elementary school students in Nikiski. That these events pass with little fanfare hardly detracts from their significance.
A partnership between schools, area law enforcement and, of course, parents, DARE has been in existence since 1982 and is part of the curriculum in 80 percent of schools across the country. Specially trained DARE officers, who are generally drawn from the ranks of law enforcement, take the program's anti-drug message to 36 million schoolchildren each year.
The program is offered in every school on the central peninsula and is active as well in both Seward and Homer. While it may not be a guaranteed cure for the alarming drug abuse statistics and the social costs that go hand in hand with abuse, DARE has been successful in heightening awareness and helping kids make healthy choices.
At the elementary level, DARE officers conduct a weekly presentation for 17 weeks. As children progress through school, the lessons learned are reinforced and expanded on, right through the high school level.
Alaska State Trooper Vic Aye, who is a DARE officer from the Soldotna trooper detachment, says he measures the program's success one child at a time.
"For us, as long as we can get to one kid, I feel, personally, that we've succeeded," he said. "(But) we're not going to get to every kid. ... It's a tool. What the kids do with it is up to them."
The program is not solely about drug and alcohol abuse. It's also about raising self esteem and awareness of violence. It's about choices -- and the consequences of those choices.
Perhaps most important, DARE teaches children how to say "no." In fact, it teaches eight different ways to just say 'no."
As difficult as the results of the program may to be quantify, a recent study by the University of Akron concluded that students who were taught the DARE curriculum showed improved communications skills and beliefs about the prevalence of substance use -- two key indicators of whether they will use drugs.
Improvements noted among the students in the program included:
A significant increase in refusal skills;
A significant decrease in students' perception of peer drug use;
A significant decrease in the percentage of students who believe that substance use by students their own age is common and acceptable.
Recognizing the program's value, President Bush recently declared April 11 to be National DARE Day. It will be celebrated as such annually.
Closer to home, Soldotna Police Chief Shirley Gifford is also a big believer in DARE.
"I think this is the most valuable program on the peninsula in which the police and the schools have partnerships," she said.
That partnership extends to the community, where area businesses foot the bill for the program -- proving again that raising a child, and providing prevention education, truly does take a village.
We applaud all those involved in making the program a reality on the Kenai Peninsula. Through their efforts, DARE is making everyone's village a better place to live.
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