GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — These days, DARE is more than saying no to drugs and alcohol, DARE Officer Kevin Jorgensen said.
“Whether it’s a bullying topic, or being a good neighbor, or being a good son or daughter — just all around being a good person and making good decisions,” he explained. “We really want to push them to lead safe and healthy lives.”
The township’s DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, program currently teaches the comprehensive method in seven elementary schools and one middle school. Since 2016, approximately 1,500 local students have been involved, Jorgensen said.
But a new lesson is being added to the curriculum — an opioid and over-the-counter prescription drug program that the township plans to roll out in the near future.
The opioid crisis certainly doesn’t discriminate against any particular race, gender or economic group, Chief Donna Higbee said, explaining that the best way to spread the message of making good decisions is to get it into the township’s schools.
The opioid and over the counter prescription drug program is a part of the “keepin’ it REAL,” or Refuse, Explain, Avoid and Leave, curriculum that was developed by Penn State and Arizona State University researchers and integrated into participating schools between 2009 and 2013.
About 2,750 people died from drug overdoses last year in New Jersey, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. Preliminary data from the state Department of Law and Public Safety through NJ CARES showed that fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and related analogs overtook heroin as the leading drug involved in overdose deaths. While overdoses climbed in nearly every county, in Atlantic and Ocean counties, there were fewer overdoses compared to 2016.
It’s a new take on the program that started in the 1980s as strictly a substance-abuse prevention program.
A study by the Department of Justice in 1994 found that the program was “less successful than interactive programs” and another in 2009 cited more than 30 studies that showed the program wasn’t working, and “one intensive, six-year study even found that the program increased drug use among suburban teens by a small amount.”
However, a 2016 report from the Surgeon General found that the ”keepin’ in REAL” program has had “significant prevention effects.”
Higbee said that the DARE program was the best fit for them, and the program is revamped with a focus on decision making — no matter the situation.
“We can only go by the feedback from the teachers and students, and they seem to be really happy with the program,” she said.
“It’s statistic-driven; we’ll give statistics and health effects of using drugs,” Jorgensen said. “We teach them resistance strategies, walking away, strength in numbers, and reporting-see something, say something.”
It’s age-appropriate, with videos of kids their age that they can relate to, and interactive, Jorgensen said, with the kids participating in group discussions, acting out scenarios and teaming up in pairs to complete activities, with a focus on education.
“We touch on just because a medication is prescribed is prescribed to you doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he said. “You have to take the medicine how it’s prescribed.”
DARE is currently in its third year in the township, Higbee said, fully funded by donations and through National Night Out. The chief brought the program back after it wasn’t in schools since the 1990s.
“I saw a real breakdown between law enforcement and the youth, when it came to the interaction and the willingness for them to approach the officers,” Higbee said of her decision to bring the program back. “Beyond providing information about criminal activity — just to be able to have a regular interaction.”
And that’s one of the big benefits of the program — to get police officers into schools to interact with students in a positive way and build relationships between law enforcement and the community, Jorgensen said.
“DARE is the bridge, in my opinion, to building trust and positive community relations,” he said, adding that the focus is on the students. “We get a lot of really good feedback from the kids. They really get into it.”