Although a presentation from Rockwood School District administrators about their new approach to drug education was on the agenda for Thursday's board of education meeting, board president Steve Smith announced it was canceled just prior to the public comment portion of the meeting.
Nearly 80 local police officers, former Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) graduates, parents, police trainers and national law enforcement officials attended the meeting to hear the district's rationale for the recent program changes and to communicate their renewed plea for the D.A.R.E. program to be reinstated.
Smith told the crowd the new district representative now responsible for overseeing that area of curriculum as director of elementary education, Karen Hargadine, needed more time to address the matter. Hargadine has been the principal of Fairway Elementary School since 2004. She was employed by Rockwood since 1997. She was not present at the meeting.
"We have new leadership in that department. Dr. Hargadine will be transitioning in the new role in the next couple of weeks," said Smith. "The drug education presentation will be moved to the June 16 agenda. We won't be taking any action on it tonight. While we can't promise what will happen next, my own intuition is that the outcome may be more palatable to those in attendance tonight."
The interim executive director of elementary schools this year had been Jill Ramsey.
Another Rockwood staffer instrumental in the district's drug education evaluation has been Carrie Luttrell, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. She reports directly to Superintendent Bruce Borchers.
Smith said Rockwood's board of education directors did pay attention to the e-mails, letters and phone calls as well as patron comments made at previous board meetings regarding concerns about eliminating the D.A.R.E. program in favor of a new approach that incorporates drug education into health classes throughout all grade levels of the district's elementary schools.
Ellisville Police Chief Tom Felgate said while he still thinks Rockwood is one of the finest school districts in the state because its representatives genuinely care about the students, he believes a "great disservice to the district's students and families had been done by dropping the D.A.R.E. program."
"This needs to be addressed, because it's counterproductive to the caring part of Rockwood," he said.
He stated that burglaries and stealing incidences are rising in West St. Louis County, due to heroin addictions. He said police and other public safety groups had believed since 1993 that drug prevention is critical for fifth and sixth graders, due to their retention levels at that age and to the amount of peer pressure applied at that time in their lives.
"Please keep D.A.R.E., and keep our kids off alcohol and drugs," he said.
Elizabeth McConnell, D.A.R.E. deputy director for education in the St. Louis region, said she was stunned and disappointed that Rockwood would consider changing the program. "I will work with anyone, anytime about D.A.R.E. I didn't know you were working on it at all," she said.
McConnell explained that next week was when the D.A.R.E. staff was scheduled to begin rewriting parts of the program, based on social/emotional learning techniques. She said the new dimension of D.A.R.E. had been developed by Pennsylvania State faculty and was furthering their recent "Keeping It Real" effort.
"If ever there was a time to drop D.A.R.E., it's not now," she said, citing the rising incidences of kiddy-flavored drugs.
She said 11 national organizations had reviewed and guided "every word that D.A.R.E. does."
She also said she thought it was important to note that the national research indicates police rank higher than classroom teachers as preferred drug prevention confidantes among elementary students. "I think we're putting too much pressure on our teachers to do everything in their classrooms. Please let us at D.A.R.E. be a part of your solution," she said.
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch, who also is a Rockwood-based resident with sons who attend the district's schools, said he could only imagine how embarrassed the directors must be, regarding how this strained situation came about. "You probably had no idea it (elimination of D.A.R.E.) was going to be announced. Well, we're here tonight to help and to talk instead of just saying 'get out of our schools,'" he said.
Fitch said the county team of police officers would like to offer a compromise.
Through the recent Keeping It Real endeavor, he said all D.A.R.E. officers were about to get trained in the new methodologies and tools. "We're asking for one school year to allow us to transition to this new program," he said.
"Sure, it would be easier for me to put the four full-time D.A.R.E. officers back on patrol, but we see too many St. Louis County residents die from heroin. In fact, a lot of people are in denial about this problem here," he said. "My fear is that if we give up our time with our children, we won't get it back."
Fitch cited that the same situation had happened with the Parkway School District. "They dropped the program, and said we'd be back, but it's been several years and we're still not back in Parkway," he said.
Sheldon Lineback, executive director of D.A.R.E. for Missouri, provided packets to each director regarding studies that demonstrate the program's effectiveness. "Every person who graduates from our two-week core program can teach about safety, drug education, cyber bullying, meth and games. We want to work with you to benefit the Rockwood students," he said.
Eureka board of aldermen from Ward 1, Wes Sir and Bob Berry, read into the record the content of a letter sent to the Rockwood board from the Eureka Mayor Kevin Coffey. The gist of the letter was that Eureka city officials believe police officers are the "front line of keeping neighborhoods safe from dangers that drugs and alcohol can bring to the community."
Coffey stated that the city always supported D.A.R.E. and began funding 100 percent of the program when overall funds were cut several years ago. The letter also stated that Eureka officials had heard from many residents, who were extremely upset by the decision to eliminate the program. With the D.A.R.E. program being taught in 50 states and in more than 75 percent of U.S. schools, Coffey said he hoped that Rockwood will reconsider and allow the program to resume in the fall.
Sgt. Nancy Walker, St. Louis County D.A.R.E. officer in Ellisville, said she had been involved in police work since 1990 and worked with two Rockwood schools: Ellisville Elementary and Ridge Meadows Elementary. "I think not having D.A.R.E. is a big mistake. Students need the complete approach that the weekly D.A.R.E. classes supply," she said.
Walker said she's often told by families and older siblings of D.A.R.E. students how important the program is in opening up communications about drugs within individual families. "Not having D.A.R.E. could mean disastrous results for our children's future. And I think police benefit from getting to know the next generation of young adults," she said.
Jason Grellner, past president of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association, said he was representing the sentiment of the 350 officers who work in that area every day. "We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We rely on D.A.R.E. to reach our most at-risk children," he said.
Grellner said statistics indicate the majority of experimentation with illegal drug use starts happening when children reach 12 or 13 years old. "D.A.R.E. teaches them how to make intelligent choices in their lives. D.A.R.E. works, day in and day out. We have a war on drugs, and with law enforcement paying for D.A.R.E., we cannot understand why Rockwood would turn away a free program," he said.
Officer Dan Hawk, who has been a D.A.R.E. officer in Ballwin for three of his last six years of police work there, said he believed fifth grade was the appropriate age at which to teach these lessons. "I'm here tonight to tell you that D.A.R.E. is worthwhile, and it does work."
Officer Kathy Kelly, St. Louis County D.A.R.E. officer, who works with South County schools, such as in Lindbergh, Mehlville, Affton, Bayless and Hancock, said the D.A.R.E. two-week extensive training gives officers the exact tools needed to help elementary students, middle schoolers, parent groups and community groups. "It's the tri-fold approach of police, community and schools. As D.A.R.E. officers, we want to make sure our kids reach their goals and dreams," she said.
Kelly then recited the Rockwood mission statement on the table banner: "We do whatever it takes to ensure all students realize their potential" and challenged the directors to do "whatever it takes in drug prevention" to help Rockwood students reach their potential.
Ken Patterson spoke up as a grandfather of Rockwood students. "Without D.A.R.E., our kids will not have a voice. We must let our children talk. I see nine people in front of me tonight that I hope shall do the right thing by our children," he said.
Retired Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper Edward Moses echoed that effectiveness and positive impact of D.A.R.E., saying that they had researched other drug prevention programs, even completing a blind study about them. "As a former undercover officer and drug recognition expert, it's an alarming thing to consider how drug-related effects are changing," he said.
Moses emphasized that new grades of synthetic marijuana now are often 800 times stronger than marijuana sold in prior years. "Research indicates this new marijuana is doing things to our brains that drugs never did before," he said. "And we've seen several deaths in college and problems with the alcohol content in so-called energy drinks," he said. "The earliest warning signs are our officers. We would really appreciate you reconsidering your decision, and allowing the trained officers back into being able to help with the problems."
Moses said he would be happy to consult with Rockwood, free of charge, "because kids are that important."
Maryann Esser, a parent of a Selvidge Middle School and a Marquette student, said their neighborhood had benefited from assistance provided by Officer Hawk regarding a drug-related community problem. She said it happened due to the relationships that started in D.A.R.E.
Her husband, Ken, said he thought having D.A.R.E. was a no-brainer because he didn't believe it would work out well if students were expected to tell teachers about their peers, in essence "narcing on each other." He said he believes it takes a combination of internal and external resources at schools to handle drug prevention. "Let's get over this egoism, and the problems that come from focusing on whose more powerful than whom," he said.
Rockwood parent Lisa Richards Frank reminded the directors that when she was a student, Nancy Reagan said: 'Just say no' when it came to drugs. "That seems funny now, especially given that kids are seeing drugs sold and glorified on TV, in their music and in electronic games. I'm daring you to keep D.A.R.E., and daring you as board of directors to keep the best interests of our kids at heart," she said.