The patron comment portion of Thursday's Rockwood School District board of education meeting was dominated by one subject, covered by a variety of speakers: requests for the district to reconsider the recent elimination of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program.
Approximately 45 minutes of comments and materials were exchanged with district directors and administrators about D.A.R.E. However, the decision to cancel the program did not originate with the board of directors, but rather came from Rockwood administrators. Several Rockwood board of directors indicated they were just as surprised about the development as parents were.
Board of education president Steve Smith said, "There are some legitimate disagreements involved here. I can defend the decision, but I can't defend the way it was made."
Board of education directors agreed to readdress the program at the June 2 meeting.
Thursday evening speakers included students who had graduated from D.A.R.E., as well as several police officers and parents. Families previously involved with the program immediately expressed their dismay over the sudden cancellation of a specially trained police officer-delivered program and substitution with what eventually was described last week as a new Rockwood internal program.
Conflicting reports about what prompted Rockwood's change of direction for D.A.R.E. have been puzzling. After reactions to the program cancellation heated up, Rockwood spokespeople recently explained they had met over the past year with the Chesterfield Police Department about desired alterations in the program, however Chesterfield's Lt. Steve Lewis indicated they would have continued supporting the traditional D.A.R.E. model if Rockwood would have wanted them to do so.
Students voiced D.A.R.E. should be left the way it is
Approximately 23 students who have graduated from the program attended the school board meeting, decked out in their official D.A.R.E. T-shirts. They spoke from experience and made a variety of notable comments.
"Most principals don't know every student in their schools," said Lily Goldberg, of Eureka, at the podium Thursday night. "Students would be missing the relationship with their police officers, and future students would be let down when they aren't able to do D.A.R.E."
Jordan Thompson, a Eureka-based student, said with 500 children per school, she felt it was "virtually impossible" for school staffs to build the positive relationships with every student needed to address drugs. "If my best friends wanted me to do drugs, I can look them in the eyes and say no because I went through the D.A.R.E. program. That's not covered in health or P.E. classes," she said.
"We don't talk about marijuana and peer pressure in those classes. But police officers, like Officer Jenn, can talk about it because they have seen it firsthand," said Thompson.
Hailey Hicks, a Wildwood-based student, said the program helps children not to choose bad choices. "It also teaches us how to be good friends when it comes to drugs."
Paige Rhine, a fifth grader at Blevins Elementary School who just graduated from D.A.R.E., said she could think of many reasons to keep the program the way it was. "First, kids show less respect to P.E. teachers compared to police officers. Secondly, you said the program would be done by guests but you didn't say who they will be. Third, future students won't get to participate in D.A.R.E. essays and draw D.A.R.E. pictures. And fourth, students wouldn't get to go through the graduation ceremony to be rewarded for all their hard work."
Emily Heuerman, another Eureka student, said it is important to be proactive and to talk about drugs before situations about them happen. "I also think D.A.R.E. should be kept at the fifth grade, because fifth graders are getting ready to go to middle school. Without the relationship with police officers, I don't think younger kids would understand it. I don't understand why you would take D.A.R.E. away."
Fifth grader Jessica Branham said she felt safe in her relationship with her D.A.R.E. officer, and that she agreed about teaching it with older students. "Kids won't know what police officers or teachers are talking about if they are younger than fifth grade."
Students Hailey Krey and Madison Ripson teamed up at the podium to voice that they wanted to save "our D.A.R.E. program."
Parents indicated various concerns
Wildwood parent Lisa Corbett made three points. She asked why parents and the board of education directors were not notified about the change in the program prior to the decision. "Secondly, I'd like to ask doesn't the board have the right to know about this type of change, and to talk about it?"
Thirdly, Corbett wanted to understand if the district was going to cut "a free and successful drug education program," and replace it with a newly proposed and expanded program, from where would the funding come to train the program administrators of a new program and to pay for the materials.
"We, as parents and taxpayers, are not interested in things that cost more money, especially when we had a drug education program that was operating just fine," she said.
"Where is the Rockwood research for this new program? On the Rockwood website, its indicates that the role of the district's board of directors is to study, evaluate, and vote in the best interest of all students. I ask that you do that in this case," Corbett said.
Melanie Stout, a parent of three children associated with Geggie Elementary School, said two of her three kids are D.A.R.E. graduates. "Knowledge is power. This program has empowered my children to make smart decisions about tobacco, drugs and alcohol," she said.
But Stout said an even more important element of the program was that the D.A.R.E. officer provided her personal cell phone number to students and offered a 24/7 connection with them, if they ever needed it.
Stout said students benefit from the critical role playing aspects of D.A.R.E. as well, in that they learn "how to say no to peer pressure" by practicing in the classroom. "These skills truly improve their ability to handle this throughout their lives. How can it not turn them into better people?"
Police leaders also shared their opinions
Even St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch weighed in on the matter. Capt. Kenneth Williams, head of the St. Louis County-Wildwood Precinct, read a letter from Fitch Thursday evening, who was unable to attend the meeting. The letter stated news that Rockwood had discontinued the D.A.R.E. program was "received with regret."
Fitch indicated as a local resident, two of his own children had graduated from D.A.R.E. "I think it is one of the largest, single benefits of the district and something the district did so well. Our position is that the program helps by offering students the opportunity to interact with officers," he said.
"Our department would like to see the program continue as it currently exists. It cannot be duplicated by other programs."
While Fitch indicated St. Louis County Police teams obviously respect Rockwood's right to make changes in its own curriculum, they request D.A.R.E. be left in its current form.
Julie Ziesemann, a 1988 D.A.R.E. graduate and now Rockwood parent of three who lives in Eureka, left the board of directors something solid to contemplate. "I'm here tonight because of the effect Officer Whistle from D.A.R.E. had on my life. Kids need a parachute and real world education about how to get help with drug-related situations," she said. "My D.A.R.E. officer was a major element in my decision to not do drugs."
Ziesemann cited research from Rockwood's Drug Free Coalition that indicated 65 percent of Rockwood students lack positive family communication and 67 percent do not have local, positive adult role models.
She delivered to the board of directors a packet of letters collected from students and parents about D.A.R.E. She asked them to open the packets straight away at the meeting and to pull out the last sheet, which was blank. "That blank piece of paper is meant to represent all the students who don't have a voice here tonight. D.A.R.E. is the only place they are going to get the type of assistance they need and deserve," she said.
In conclusion, board president Smith told all speakers their comments were meaningful to board members. "Statements from our young people are especially meaningful. I'm proud of the poise and intelligence you've addressed us with," he said.
A loud applause broke out, after which board of directors took a quick break before continuing with other agenda topics for the meeting.