Inside Report: A new kind of DARE in La. schools

For years, Drug Abuse Resistance Education has been a fixture in Louisiana schools.

This school year, DARE has a fresh look and feel as officers across the state roll out a new curriculum that emphasizes decisionmaking and life skills. The curriculum, known as “Keepin’ it REAL” — standing for the Refuse, Explain, Avoid and Leave strategy — employs a more holistic approach in discouraging drug use, stressing communication skills.

“It teaches them how to make sound decisions in every area of their lives.” said Cpl. Don Coppola, a Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman.

During the 10-week course, the students encounter real-life scenarios they’re likely to confront throughout adolescence, extending beyond hammering home a message of saying no to drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

“Some kids will never use drugs, but they’ll lie to their parents,” said Capt. Randy Aguillard, a veteran DARE officer with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office is teaching DARE in about 45 schools this year. The agency graduated 2,300 fifth-graders and 1,200 seventh- and eighth-graders from the state-funded program last year.

Baton Rouge City Constable Reginald Brown said the new curriculum does not belabor its discussion of specific drugs and includes lessons on bullying and peer pressure.

“It fits with what’s going on in our schools today,” said Brown, adding that his officers are teaching the program in a dozen city schools this semester and another 12 schools in the spring.

Cpl. Shirlena Ruffin, one of Brown’s full-time DARE officers, said the fifth-graders complete exercises designed to help them with self-control and to cope with stress. “We still teach them about certain drugs, like alcohol and tobacco,” she said, “but we don’t go as in depth.”

“The kids are very responsive,” Ruffin added. “I think it’s going to work out.”

Brown and other law enforcement officials said there are important aspects of the program that have not changed. For one, he said, the children are still benefiting from interacting with their instructors and seeing the officers not as adversaries but as confidantes.

“They become their friend with a uniform, a gun and a badge — something some of these kids don’t expect to see in a police officer,” Brown said. “We’ve got DARE officers that have got better means of talking to those students in school than some parents do, and sometimes the teachers.”

Another shift in the program locally has been the Baton Rouge Police Department’s recent return to the DARE scene. The program was revived under former Police Chief Dewayne White, and last school year marked the first since 2005 that city police officers had participated.

Coppola said the Police Department is partnering with the Constable’s Office this year and has officers teaching fifth-graders at Progress Elementary, University Terrace Elementary, Belfair Elementary and Inspire Charter Academy.

“Some kids decide they want to become police officers once they get the opportunity to really know one,” Cpl. L’Jean McKneely said.

The effectiveness of DARE has been called into question through the years, and the program has its share of critics. But veteran instructors like Aguillard said the students receive some intangible benefits that can be difficult to measure.

“We’re teaching them about choices,” he said, “but the thing I always get back from it is a relationship between law enforcement and the community.”

Jim Mustian covers crime and law enforcement for The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jimmustian or write him at jmustian@theadvocate.com.