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DARE bucks national trend

There are nine DARE officers in North Dakota.

There are nine DARE officers in North Dakota. Five of those teaching the anti-drug program work in Fargo schools.

At a time when cities nationally are dropping DARE, Fargo is adding more officers to teach drug prevention classes to children.

Last week, Cincinnati officials joined a growing number of cities -- like Seattle, Minneapolis and Houston -- to cut funding for DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

Critics claim the program's effectiveness can't be proven or costs too much.

"When you have a program that hasn't always lived up to its potential in some aspects, do we throw it away or make some changes," Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus said.

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The Police Department started teaching DARE in Fargo schools in 1989.

Two major changes in Fargo's DARE program make it among the most progressive in the nation, Magnus said.

Instead of teaching DARE to students once during their school years, officers will teach lessons to children in the fifth and seventh grades.

"No matter how good the message is, the message needs to be reinforced as kids get older," Magnus said.

The Police Department's second major change was to combine the duties for school resource officers and DARE officers.

Previously, there were school resource officers at North and South high schools and three DARE officers. Now, the Police Department has five school resource officers who teach DARE classes.

Behind the scenes, DARE critics want to stop the program in Fargo, said Jerry Stigman, principal at Jefferson Elementary School.

School officials, though, adamantly support keeping DARE in the classroom, he said.

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"We don't want to lose the program," said Stigman, whose school served as home to a DARE camp this week. "It's a good program."

A 2001 risk behavioral survey showed Fargo youth use marijuana and other drugs more often than rural North Dakota children. However, Fargo youths used alcohol and tobacco less than those outside the metro area.

"Our experience at a local level is that DARE is very effective and helps us reach one of our primary goals to increase interaction between police and young people," Magnus said.

The wages and benefits for the five officers will be about $225,000 this year.

Annually, the Police Department spends about $10,000 for DARE T-shirts, workbooks and training. Most of the costs are defrayed by donations.

"If you want to reduce crime, you have to invest in prevention," Magnus said. "There's no question that getting police and children together, we can impact gang activity and drug and alcohol use."

Lt. Marvin Huckle estimates the school resource officers will spend about 30 percent to 40 percent of their time teaching DARE. The remainder of the time will be spent working in and around their assigned secondary schools to provide a safe environment and build relationships with students, he said.

DARE America, which started in 1983 in Los Angeles, claims its program is taught in about 80 percent of schools nationwide. That percentage, though, is likely less after cities dropped the program for lack of funding or when studies failed to show DARE's effectiveness.

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In North Dakota, there is one DARE officer each serving West Fargo, Cass County, Rolla and the Minot Air Force Base.

Clay County and Moorhead also have DARE officers.

Some North Dakota cities and counties have a Counteract Fund, a shortened version of DARE which relies on parents to work with children to address drug and alcohol education.

Fargo Officer Greg Lemke, a school resource officer and the state's DARE coordinator, hopes to expand the program throughout the state.

DARE teaches children positive alternatives to drugs and alcohol, behavior consequences, handling peer pressure and resolving problems without using violence, he said.

One reason DARE hasn't taken hold across North Dakota, he said, is that rural departments can't afford to send officers to out-of-state training.

Salary woes also play a role because rural departments hesitate to train someone who may leave for a better paying job, Lemke said.

The Fargo Police Department is considering establishing a mentoring program, using Fargo officers to train DARE to departments statewide.

"Out west, a lot of people don't know about it," Lemke said. "It has to be a community effort. If it's not, it won't work."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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