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Collier County Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Vila teaches D.A.R.E. to deputies from around the state at the Lake County sheriff’s training academy in Tavares (Jason Ruiter/Orlando Sentinel).

A law officer practicing a drug-education awareness course for elementary students tried to get a group of deputies excited.

“What time is it?” Martin County deputy sheriff Andrea Olson asked the group. The muffled response prompted her to goad them: “Louder, louder!” This time the deputies — portraying schoolkids in a mock exercise — offered a full-throated response: “D.A.R.E. time!”

Olson was taking part in a certification course for Lake deputies who will teach the Drug Awareness Resistance Education — or D.A.R.E. — program to fifth-graders. With Florida’s opioid crisis looming in the background, Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell wants to resurrect D.A.R.E. in Lake schools after it was dropped because of budget concerns in 2013.

Though studies have criticized the program for not preventing drug use, proponents say it’s been adapted based on research and has been rebounding in Florida as sheriffs’ budgets improve along with the economy.

“In ’07, ’08, you started seeing it go [away] in many local municipalities,” said Jay Best, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s statewide coordinator for D.A.R.E. “But it’s coming back faster than we ever thought it would.”

D.A.R.E. in Florida spiked before the recession with 65,000 fifth-graders learning the dangers of marijuana, tobacco and peer pressure. It hit a low point in the state in 2014, reaching just 19,000 students, but has been making gains since.

Grinnell, who was elected in November, pledged during his campaign to revive D.A.R.E.

More than 75 percent of all school districts in the U.S. once participated in D.A.R.E., founded in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department. That included Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.

It fell out of favor in school districts after scientific studies from universities and government departments found that D.A.R.E. had no demonstrable impact on students who took the course versus those who didn’t.

“I’ve always been interested in the war on drugs… [and] the majority of D.A.R.E. research shows that D.A.R.E. does nothing,” said A.J. Marsden, a professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg who wrote her graduate paper on the subject.

Marsden, who went through the D.A.R.E. program as a fifth grader in 1989, remembered how the original course fell flat with her and her peers. She said D.A.R.E. used scare tactics to try to discourage kids from using drugs and students tuned out.

“I remember in the D.A.R.E. program they said strangers would just approach me and ask me to try marijuana,” she said. “I have never had that happen.”

But Collier County sheriff’s Cpl. Kenneth Vila, a 24-year educator in the program and the 2015 national D.A.R.E. Officer of the Year, said the program has shifted.

D.A.R.E. has cut many lessons, he said, and now has a course called “Keepin’ it REAL” that focuses more on how to evaluate and make tough social decisions.

“It’s not so much about drugs anymore,” he said. “D.A.R.E. is about being … a person who communicates well with others… Kids are going to party, but if you can help them make right decisions, it’s worth it.”

Earlier this month, two dozen deputies from around the state gathered in Tavares to go through an 80-hour D.A.R.E. certification course taught by Vila and others.

Deputies showed cartoon videos featuring kids faced with tough choices and then reviewed it in a mock class setting. Afterward, they implemented a new alternative D.A.R.E. moniker: Define, Assess, Respond and Evaluate, to see how it applied.

“These are real stories told by kids to kids,” Vila said. “It’s something they can relate to.”

While D.A.R.E.’s former curriculum was bashed by researchers for not being evidence-based, many have supported the new model of interactive learning. But a 2011 University of California study concluded more time and study would be needed to fully see the fruits of the new D.A.R.E. model.

For Grinnell, the program projected to cost $480,000 doubles as an opportunity for building relationships with the community.

“A lot of these students are in single-parent homes,” he said. “…We’ve had D.A.R.E. officers in the past that have actually been seen as father figures for that child.”

Even though six deputies have completed their certification, Grinnell said he won’t be ready to launch the program for the coming school year. First, he said, he will need budget approval from county commissioners to replace the D.A.R.E. officers, so he is projecting to reintroduce the program in the 2018-19 school year.

Other Central Florida sheriffs also think it’s important to try to keep kids off drugs.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office taught the second-most fifth-graders in the state before the recession but discontinued the D.A.R.E. program in 2009 when the agency switched to a drug-resistance curriculum developed in house called M.A.G.I.C.

Similarly, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office dropped D.A.R.E. for its own “Focus on Safety” program in 2013.

Both of those sheriff’s programs embrace a broader approach to drug-education than “Just say no.” Grinnell said D.A.R.E. has done the same.

“The D.A.R.E. curriculum has moved away from being solely being drug-based education,” he said. “It’s more focused on life skills, conflict-resolution and good choices.”

From Orlando Sentinel.

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