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After 15 years, police retiring DARE

Out with Daren the stuffed lion, DARE T-shirts and yo-yos. Largo fifth-graders will have another drug prevention program next year.

After 15 years of DARE, the Largo Police Department has decided to scrap it in favor of Too Good for Drugs, developed by the Tampa-based Mendez Foundation.

Department officials said they made the decision to drop DARE, whose acronym stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, in response to research criticizing its effectiveness and to escape its sometimes pricey paraphernalia.

Too Good for Drugs, developed in 1978, is used in 2,500 school districts nationwide. The curriculum concentrates on goal setting, decisionmaking, bonding with others, identifying and managing emotions and communicating effectively.

Those are the qualities the department was looking for. Most importantly, the program has been tested and validated as effective, Police Chief Lester Aradi said. Too Good for Drugs was picked as a model program by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The change will take effect next school year.

Sgt. Stephen Slaughter, who's in charge of the department's youth services division, was assigned to research new programs and said he stumbled across Too Good for Drugs on the Internet and liked its "flexibility." The department wants to create its own handouts and T-shirts so it can do recreation outreach activities without being tied to DARE marketing, he said.

"I'm not one to say one program's better than the other," Slaughter said. "One better represents something we want to try in the city."

Less trademarked gear means Too Good for Drugs will be cheaper. It will cost $5,400 each year, including optional purchase of T-shirts and handout items. DARE costs $7,196.

The department, which pays for the program, teaches the DARE program to 900 fifth-graders from four private schools and seven public schools. It also works with Largo kids in kindergarten through fourth grade to teach about them age-appropriate safety skills and drug and violence prevention.

Not everyone is thrilled to see DARE go.

Officer Michael Eaton teaches the 10-week DARE program five days a week at different schools and said he's discouraged that the department is dropping it.

"It upsets me, because I know it works," said Eaton, who has been teaching the program for 10 years. He runs into students years later who recognize him. Some still have their DARE T-shirts or books. If they remember him fondly, he said, maybe the message has stuck with them, too.

"If I can save one kid from smoking or using marijuana or alcohol, it's a success," he said.

The Hillsborough County School District uses Too Good for Drugs. Most Pinellas County fifth-grade classrooms still use the DARE program, according to Linda Jones, supervisor of Safe and Drug Free Schools for Pinellas County Schools.

"Some of the research on DARE does not support its effectiveness, although I tend to disagree with that," Jones said. "I'm a strong supporter of its curriculum."

But Jones said who teaches the program is even more vital than the curriculum itself.

"The most important thing is the relationship that's established with the students," Jones said. "That makes all the difference in the world."

Too Good for Drugs research concentrates on intentions of students to use drugs in the future and looks at their perceptions and attitudes about drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

A recent study showed that Florida middle school students who took part in Too Good for Drugs indicated 33 percent fewer intentions to smoke, 38 percent fewer intentions to drink alcohol and 25 percent fewer intentions to smoke marijuana than control groups.

Dr. Harold E. Shinitzky, Psy.D., who has developed, implemented, and evaluated numerous school-based and community-based prevention programs, said the program's status as a model program by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration was an "excellent stamp of approval."

"After a cursory review of the public relations Web page, I would have to say they have done their homework," Shinitzky wrote in an e-mail followup.

DARE, developed in 1983, is taught in more than 80 percent of the school districts nationwide and in 54 countries. Research criticizing DARE includes a 1998 University of Illinois study that determined that kids in the suburbs who participated in DARE had higher levels of drug use than those who didn't.

In response to the criticism, DARE officials and researchers have developed a new curriculum that incorporates more qualities of programs that work. It includes role playing and lessons on social support networks, advertising, confidence building and ways to respond to social pressure.

Shinitzky, who served on the faculty for the Department of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said variations in teaching styles may have led to some of DARE's poor research results.

"The thing about DARE is that there isn't standardization," Shinitzky said. If schools are getting good results with any program, they shouldn't necessarily toss it out, he said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Shinitzky said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorrisptimes.com.

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