GRANT ELEMENTARY — In an effort to keep kids off drugs and alcohol, the Santa Monica Police Department today will start teaching fifth graders here the D.A.R.E. curriculum, the first time in the city’s history that officers have used the educational program designed to prevent drug use, membership in gangs and violent behavior, law enforcement officials told the Daily Press Monday.

Two officers assigned to the Police Activities League will administer the program at Grant Elementary School over the next 10 weeks, helping 123 students cope with peer pressure. The plan is to start at Grant, see how students react to the program and possibly expand it if successful, said SMPD Chief Tim Jackman.

The chief likes that D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which was founded in 1983 in Los Angeles and is now taught in 75 percent of the nation’s school districts and in more than 43 countries, not only provides kids with tools to make sound decisions and communicate better, it also provides his officers the opportunity to interact with pre-teens and build long-lasting relationships.

“This is a great partnership between the school district, us and the PTA,” Jackman said. “Folks in Santa Monica really support the schools … . It’s nice to see the community come together on something as important as the kids.”

PAL Officers Austin Brown and Jennifer Rodriguez will facilitate the 10-week course. Brown said the SMPD spent roughly $1,000 to start D.A.R.E. and more money will be needed if it continues.

“The department is excited about the possibilities and is willing to put money for this and the kids in the community,” Brown said.

D.A.R.E. fell out of favor during the 1990s as competing programs tried to discredit it. There were studies that showed no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received D.A.R.E. and students who did not. There is still opposition to the program, with some going so far as to say it turns kids into informants for police.

Scott Gilliam, director of training at D.A.R.E., admits the program was “watered down” over the years as parents and schools pressured police to include curriculum dealing with bullying and other issues unrelated to drugs and alcohol.

The program was revamped, Gilliam said. Officers are no longer dictating but instead acting as facilitators of classroom activities, allowing students to drive the discussion while focusing on life-like and problem-based activities.

“We still talk about alcohol and tobacco and touch on marijuana, but it is based more on making good decisions using lessons learned from different scenarios,” Gilliam said. “We allow kids to work through it themselves and figure out what’s the best route to take when making choices in life.”

Gilliam discredited studies used by opponents, saying many were flawed and paid for by competing, for-profit entities.

Jackman mentioned the changes to the curriculum as a reason for exploring D.A.R.E.

“We think this second iteration … is a much better program,” Jackman said. “They went back and reviewed it, renewed it and used good evaluation methodology.”

New lessons include evaluating advertising to see how tobacco and alcohol companies target youth, Gilliam said. Another focuses on how adults, not just peers, influence kids, while a third addresses friendships and how to evaluate them.

“I found that programs that lay out issues and consequences of certain actions, that give options to kids are the ones that are the most successful,” said Grant Principal Alan Friedenberg. “The ones that don’t do this may have a shelf life of a year or two, but it doesn’t seem to matter as the kids get older. The fact that this program explores more in depth some of the issues that may lead to making bad choices is something I think has a chance.”

Freidenberg said his teachers have been very enthusiastic, even though the D.A.R.E. course uses time normally reserved for instruction. D.A.R.E. lessons last roughly 45 minutes.

While drug and alcohol abuse is not an issue at Grant, Friedenberg said in middle school many kids are exposed and having the tools to deal with peer pressure is critical.

“If we are planting at least some knowledge in them about what can happen if you make certain choices, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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