Originally created 05/28/03

Aiken sheriff vows to keep drug program



CLEARWATER - Although Drug Abuse Resistance Education doesn't enjoy the near-universal support it once had, the youth education program isn't going anywhere on Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt's watch.

"We're committed to it, and we're ready to go for next year," Sheriff Hunt said of the program, commonly known as DARE.

The newly elected sheriff was a guest Tuesday at Clearwater Elementary School, where he spoke to more than 60 fifth-graders and their parents at the school's DARE graduation. Afterward, he talked about why he wanted to keep the program - which is not without its critics - in Aiken County's 14 public elementary schools.

"We have evaluated our program, and the parents and teachers made it clear they want it to continue," Sheriff Hunt said. "I think it plays an important role in helping kids build relationships with law enforcement, as well as teaching them about the dangers of drugs."

DARE has taken some hits in academic circles ever since a long-range University of Kentucky study of 2,000 DARE pupils found the program had few lasting effects a decade later. Some educators have worried the 17 weeks of weekly, hourlong classes eat into instruction time.

The program can also stretch officer resources, one of the reasons the Aiken Department of Public Safety quit teaching DARE two years ago, replacing it with its own curriculum, Youth and Public Safety.

"DARE is pretty rigid in the curriculum you must follow," Aiken Public Safety Capt. Wendell Hall said. "Youth and Public Safety allows us to address a lot of different kinds of issues."

Clearwater Elementary Principal Susan Malcom said she has heard the criticism of DARE and knows how valuable classroom instruction time is in an era of increasing pressure for pupils to perform on standardized tests.

"I still think it's a good program," Ms. Malcom said. "Anyone else who can come in and be a role model for students is a good thing. I hear them repeating things they've heard in DARE. However, home influence is also very important."

The sheriff said that beyond the salaries of Deputies Debbie Rodgers and Don Henry to teach the course, the costs of DARE are minimal. Course materials are provided by the state Criminal Justice Academy, and volunteer fire departments and area businesses pitch in for rewards such as the T-shirts that were passed out to pupils Tuesday.

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1394.