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Prevention moves to IMS | Drug, alcohol-use programs to re-focus on young teens

To many, the acronym D.A.R.E. represented the community’s drug and alcohol prevention programs in one word. But since it was announced that the Mercer Island Police Department no longer planned to designate a patrol officer for D.A.R.E., city officials have not been able to succinctly label their new approach to prevention.

The city instead proposed a change in venue — from the elementary school to middle school — for its programs to teach young people about the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse. City officials say that research indicates that lessons taught to grade school children are not as lasting as those taught to preteens, who are just entering the age range when they are most at risk.

The new model will be led by Marla Mitchell, a Youth and Family Services (YFS) counselor at Islander Middle School, and Detective Art Munoz, the police department’s School Resource Officer. Both leaders will educate students about drug and alcohol abuse. In addition to the negative impacts on teens’ health from such behaviors, the pair will also cover topics such as safely surfing the Internet and the risks associated with online social networking sites such as MySpace.com. It will also touch on schoolyard bullying.

“It’s a health-based model, not a moral lesson,” YFS director Cindy Goodwin said of the new approach. “It’s not going to be a [set] curriculum. We want it to be integrated and community-based.”

Goodwin also said that the new wrap-around approach is based on what recent studies have indicated about how communities should deal with issues such as teen drinking.

“We are losing kids to alcohol abuse; this is a disease of 18- to 24-year-olds,” Goodwin said. “It’s no longer a middle-aged [adult] problem. The reasons why youth abuse [these substances] are not cognitive. It’s an emotional and social choice.”

City Manager Rich Conrad iterated that D.A.R.E. represents just one component of an entire network of services through YFS that includes youth counselors, court diversion, a police School Resource Officer and the Communities That Care pilot project, or CTC — a prevention model aimed at changing the environment that facilitates underage drinking and drug use on Mercer Island.

Such YFS programs have existed for the past two decades but have been under the radar, Conrad said. These counselors, programs and events will continue to engage younger Islanders with prevention and education.

“Everything that was being covered in D.A.R.E. will still be covered,” Goodwin said. “I think parents will miss more of what [former D.A.R.E. Officer Jennifer Franklin] added to the program.”

Franklin served as the D.A.R.E. officer for about six years and was well liked by both the students and their parents. The rotating police department position usually switched officers every five years and with the end of her service due, Franklin was appointed as the city’s new Emergency Preparedness Officer. D.A.R.E. has been taught on the Island since 1985 and was the first in the state. Many other local police departments and cities long ago abandoned the program.

The Island’s police chief explained why he decided not appoint another officer to the job. Holmes said a shortage of one patrol officer in one of the department’s two shifts needed to be filled and research had shown such prevention messages should be given to middle schoolers instead of elementary students.

“All this led me to think there was a better way to do this,” Chief Holmes said. “I’m very confident this new model will be a better use of our resources,” Holmes said.

Teachers and community activists long associated with D.A.R.E. agree with the city’s change. Dean Quigley, who has volunteered with the Masons for years helping raise money for D.A.R.E., said he didn’t see much of a change other than that the audience will now be a little older. Jan Brusseau, Language Arts/Social studies teacher at Islander Middle School, said YFS programs already fill any gap that would be created by using the new model.

“I think D.A.R.E. was a good program. There was a lot done to energize kids but there was not the follow-up that was needed,” Brusseau said. “D.A.R.E wasn’t targeted at the right age. It’s middle school where the kids start questioning a little bit more and could use more information. I would heartily support a program that continues with these age groups. Drug and Alcohol awareness programs are necessary. It is definitely an area where students, in my opinion, need as much information as they possibly can.”

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