Daring to make a difference
Law officers connect with students in the classroom
When a student of one of his drug abuse prevention classes ultimately ends up getting arrested, Deputy Andre Mitchell of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office may hear that the program failed.
“Why? Because he made a mistake?” Mitchell recalls asking.
Mitchell, a certified Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer who teaches the program in Calvert’s public middle schools and three private schools, said people are human and they will make mistakes. That doesn’t mean law officers in Southern Maryland should stop teaching students about safe and responsible decisions.
Over the course of more than 30 years, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, known as DARE, has taught children through uniformed officers about drug prevention. The program has evolved from the earlier “just say no” approach to now focusing on responsible decisions, all the while showing students that police officers are human, too.
“Yeah, it’s taught by a police officer, but you’re going to see I’m not this robot that only knows how to arrest people,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, a member of the community action team with the Calvert sheriff’s office, said the ability to go into the school and educate allows him to show students he is similar to them.
“Look, I’m here, we’re laughing, we’re having a good time. I’m not writing any tickets, I’m not arresting anyone,” he said. Mitchell added that through the program students learn that he is a family man who enjoys playing music.
DARE began in 1983 when the Los Angeles Unified School District teamed up with the Los Angeles Police Department to create a drug prevention program.
Claude Nelson, DARE coordinator for Maryland, said the Los Angeles schools initially wrote a 14-lesson curriculum and added more lessons to cover more issues in following years.
DARE America, the organization that oversees the program, was put into place to handle the nationwide sweep as the program became more popular, Nelson said.
In the late 1990s, DARE America was given the rights to the curriculum. The program now delivers a Keepin’ It REAL (Refuse, Explain, Avoid, Leave) curriculum that focuses on decision making. The program now has 10 lessons.
Nelson said since 2005 the ideology of DARE has been to help students become positive citizens. The program has an elementary, middle and high school curriculum.
The majority of programs in Southern Maryland are delivered during the school year at elementary and middle schools. St. Mary’s and Charles also have summer programs that involve officers working with students. In St. Mary’s, a four-day Camp DARE is available for incoming fifth- and sixth-graders.
Charles County has enrichment programs led by officers over the summer and a Just Say No camp that is similar to DARE and is for students who participate in Students Against Destructive Decisions.
Officer Sheilagh Cook, a school resource officer with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, said she has been teaching DARE to fifth- and sixth-graders for three years and she likes the program “simply because of the information we pass on to the young kids.”
She said the program has students and officers talking and engaging in activities associated with topics like stress and peer conflict and how to deal with it along with talking about the effects of alcohol and tobacco.
Nelson said the program also touches on bullying, including cyberbullying, which is bullying using electronic technology such as social media.
DARE helps open students’ eyes to different ways to approach and handle situations, Cook said. The dangers of drugs are woven into conversations but lessons aren’t geared specifically to them as much as in the past.
Students and officers discuss feelings and emphasize they are unique to each individual, she said. Just because something may make one person sad doesn’t mean that same thing is not making another person angry.
Officer Melanie Tyner, who is also a school resource officer in Charles, said the fifth-grade curriculum emphasizes resistance strategies. She said officers teach about hanging around positive people and non-users of drugs. She said the lesson talks about how there is strength in numbers.
Mitchell said the lessons for elementary and middle school students are about “identifying people in one’s life they can turn to for encouragement and guidance.”
Tyner said those people can include teachers and police officers.
“I always tell them I’m a school resource officer,” she said. “Key word is ‘resource.’ I’m a resource for you. You can come and talk with me.”
Throughout the 10-lesson program, Cpl. Angela Delozier, a DARE-certified officer with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office and DARE mentor for other officers in Maryland, said, “We try to teach them to be confident” when it comes to saying no, whether to drugs or to other negative activities and situations.
Officers become teachers
Cook said DARE helps students look beyond just what they perceive. “And that’s why I like it so much because it encompasses so much for the kids and it also lets them see officers in a teaching role.”
Officers go through a two-week training course each year to be certified. In that training, they learn about the DARE program and how to effectively teach it.
Nelson said 15 Maryland counties and Baltimore city participate in DARE and there are 112 law enforcement officers currently certified, including 17 in Charles County, six in Calvert and five in St. Mary’s.
Officers learn various ways to engage students without lecturing, a technique that Nelson said doesn’t work.
Nelson said the overarching theme for the whole program is decision making.
Delozier, who is the school resource officer for the Leonardtown school campus, emphasized the program has to be taught by a police officer who is certified in delivering the program. “The reason that is so awesome is because police officers have already seen all this,” she said of some of the decisions that students may face.
Brianna Edelen, a correctional officer with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, helps with Camp DARE. She recalled Delozier teaching the program when Edelen was a student at Margaret Brent Middle School. Edelen said the program influenced her, and her peer group, back in middle school.
DARE wasn’t just about drug abuse, she said. “It’s about resisting peer pressure altogether and being truthful to yourself.”
The values the officers try to instill, Edelen said, are similar to those many children hear from their parents all the time.
Elijah Pender, 12, a student at John Hanson Middle School in Waldorf, said he liked that DARE was taught by officers and hearing the lessons from officers means more than hearing it from a regular teacher because officers are the ones that are able to arrest people.
Pender said one thing he remembers from the DARE curriculum when he was a sixth-grader was about bullying and cyberbullying. Bullying people online, Pender said, is “not cool whatsoever.”
Officers instruct the students while in full uniform, and Mitchell said that is vital. “Kids need to recognize that the uniform is not bad,” Mitchell said.
He said there are children who act like they don’t like police, and when asked why they say they just don’t.
“That’s not a good reason,” he said, adding “we’re supposed to be the good guys.”
Mitchell said when he was in elementary school he didn’t like police because his father once was arrested. Nobody ever told Mitchell when he was a child what his father was arrested for and that is often the case for other children as well, he said. He said often nobody is telling them that their family member was arrested for selling drugs or for assaulting another person and that the police are doing their job in arresting them. Instead, they just see the officer as the person who came and took their loved one away.
Mitchell said he can show kids through DARE that he is a normal guy just like them and that yes, his job means that sometimes he has to enforce the law.
Tyner said DARE officers have an opportunity to build a rapport with students. “They see us as human beings … they see that we actually care,” she said.
Is it working?
Delozier said there is no program out there that is a complete fix. “None whatsoever,” she said. But she does believe that DARE, like other prevention programs, works. “I think they work because they’re all built off the same concept,” she said.
Delozier said she wants her own children to be the best version of themselves and programs like DARE try to foster that thought by helping students learn to make the best decision for them at that time.
She said the program won’t reach every student. “You’re just not going to,” she said.
Delozier recalled catching a high school student once who decided to sell brownies laced with marijuana at school. She remembered the student had gone through Camp DARE with her a few years before and also went through DARE in middle school during the school year with another officer.
“Didn’t you listen to anything we said?” she recalled asking him. She said the student was embarrassed, but wasn’t certain if it was because because of his choice to sell the brownies at school, or just because he got busted.
In those types of encounters with students, Delozier said, she tries to
STAFF PHOTO BY GRETCHEN PHILLIPS Officers Melanie Tyner, left and Sheilagh Cook, two school resource officers with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, talk with former DARE students from left, Rashad Carter, 11, Alizah Carter, 11, Shelby Kiesel,12, Riley Burns, 12, and Samanth Verras, 12, about their experiences with the DARE program while taking a break from Just Say No camp held earlier this month at the College of Southern Maryland’s La Plata campus.
Cpl. Angela Delozier talks with Julian Collins, 9, during a National Night Out celebration in Lexington Park earlier this month about the first thing a person should do when entering a car. Delozier speaks with students on a regular basis about safe decisions as a certified DARE instructor and school resource officer.