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December 8, 2009

It matters to the ones we save



Appeared in the Beacon News on Sunday, December 13, 2009

Columnist Kristen Ziman

As you may have heard, due to the financial times we are all currently experiencing, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program has been suspended as a cost saving measure by Aurora Police.

Since the announcement went public, many have asked me if D.A.R.E. really works. I have heard from those whose opinions I respect say unequivocally that D.A.R.E. does not work. On the other end of the spectrum, I have heard others declare that the program absolutely works. Unfortunately there is no scientific method for proving that either side is correct. While I have never been a D.A.R.E. instructor, I do have a bit of experience to draw from when it comes to observations I’ve made about the program as a police officer.

My strongest memory that made me question the effectiveness of D.A.R.E. was when I arrested a man in his late teens for possession of cocaine. While placing handcuffs on him, he asked me if I knew a certain Aurora Police officer because that officer had been his D.A.R.E. teacher. I don’t think I need to point out the obvious irony that he was being arrested for possessing drugs. Clearly this was not a success story. I’ve heard more stories from D.A.R.E. instructors of the students they taught who didn’t receive the message being sent. However, for every failure, I believe there are probably more successes.

The problem is that measuring those effective moments is impossible. We may never know about an incident in a locker room or at a party where a peer being offered drugs declines the proposal. It’s similar to being a parent and imposing values and moral lessons in your child. You can never really know when they have heard your message and internalized it. Sometimes it may take years for you to fully realize the influence you’ve had. In the same way, we may never know that a child who says no to drugs did so either consciously or subconsciously because of the teachings instilled in them by their D.A.R.E. officer.

I have also seen the ancillary benefits of D.A.R.E. For some kids, the only positive interaction they have had with a police officer is the time they’ve spent with their D.A.R.E. instructor. One officer told me that after teaching a D.A.R.E. lesson, a student stayed after class and told her that his older brother (a gang member) had a gun under his mattress. The officer conducted a home visit and seized the gun. We can never really know if that child’s trust in his D.A.R.E. officer saved a life by preventing a shooting.

I don’t disagree with the decision-makers that our financial constraints make it impossible to continue funding programs like D.A.R.E. Unfortunately, the time and resources equate to money that is not currently available. My personal hope is that we can re-evaluate the program and reinstitute it when the economy recovers. The way I see it, if we can empower one child to have the courage to say “no”, then the program is a success.

D.A.R.E. reminds me of the starfish parable: A man went down to the beach one day to take a walk. When he arrived, he noticed that the tide was unusually low and that thousands of starfish were scattered over the beach that had been exposed by the strange weather patterns. The man looked out and saw a child out amongst the sea of starfish, gathering them up and returning them to the ocean.

“What are you doing?” asked the man.

“Putting the starfish back in the ocean,” the child replied. “If I don’t, they will die.”

“But there are thousands of starfish beached out here and you’re just one person. You won’t be able to save them all in time. Your actions won’t matter.”

The child responded, “It matters to the ones I save”.

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