By Mike Heine
(Published Feb. 16, 2007, 4:30 p.m.)
The handwriting is a little sketchy, but the message from elementary students is clear-bring back the D.A.R.E. program.
Facing budget pressure from Walworth County supervisors and a need to put more deputies on the road, the Walworth County Sheriff's Department had to eliminate the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program from its 2007 budget, Sheriff David Graves said.
"It's not a decision I wanted to make, but one I feel I had to," he said, noting a Northwestern University study of the sheriff's department recommends at least nine more patrol deputies.
The last round of graduates earned their D.A.R.E. diplomas this December.
But more students want that opportunity and parents, teachers and students are clamoring for it.
Pell Lake's Star Center Elementary School fifth grade teacher Thomas Jooss had D.A.R.E. graduates write county board supervisors expressing their feelings about the elimination of the drug, alcohol, gang and violence education program.
"I think you should keep D.A.R.E. going so our younger grades should get educated with this great knowledge. I have learned so much, like there are over 200 known poisons in cigarette smoke. When I heard you were canceling D.A.R.E., I was amazed you were going to cancel a program that kept kids away from drugs," wrote Gabriel Katzenberg, who ended her letter with a P.S.- "Bring D.A.R.E. back!!!"
"I think the D.A.R.E. program is an important program. There has been less drunk drivers ever since the D.A.R.E. program started. If it stops, younger kids will not learn all the facts," wrote Brittany Campbell.
Deputy Don Crowley, one of the senior deputies with the Sheriff's Department, had taught D.A.R.E. to about 17 school districts in the county for the last 15 years. More than 15,000 kids have gone through the program.
It was his full-time job to teach elementary-aged students about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and gangs and be a reassuring face children could trust.
Crowley had been working the roads prior to becoming a certified D.A.R.E. officer and grew tired of arresting the same types of law-breakers.
"I was dealing with the same stuff, the drunks and all the problems and it was like, 'Wow, we're not gaining anything here.'" he said.
He wanted to do something that could get people to stop breaking the law. D.A.R.E. was that way.
"It just kind of connected. I thought, 'I hope I can find something better for these kids so we can make an impact on them.' D.A.R.E. does work."
The program does more than the standard drug, alcohol and gang resistance training.
Crowley has used it as a tool to help in other ways. He cited one example of three students telling him confidentially that they were sexually assaulted. Another student told Crowley he was contemplating suicide and was provided with appropriate help before it was too late, Crowley said.
With D.A.R.E. gone, "It's the kids that lose out, unfortunately," Crowley said.
Down and out
Parents, students and teachers alike have been disappointed by the loss of the program, Crowley said.
Several parents with students in Fontana Elementary School wrote letters to the county board asking for the program's reinstatement.
"This program is very beneficial to all students," wrote Michelle Alberth, of Delavan. "I feel it would be a big mistake to discontinue the program."
Maria Klesmith had a daughter graduate from D.A.R.E. and a son scheduled to go into the program next year.
"It concerns me a lot to think that he will not be given the same wonderful opportunity," Klesmith said.
"Deputy Crowley did an outstanding job with our youth and earned their respect in a way that is sure to influence their tough decisions in the future."
Fontana Elementary fifth grade teacher Noreen Lamsam said she encouraged parents to write letters, and hopes Graves or county supervisors will find a way to reinstate the program.
"It's a great program," Lamsam said. "The kids really are able to ask questions of someone who knows about it. If I was trying to do this, I wouldn't come off with as much knowledge as does a police officer."
No dough, no D.A.R.E.
Although the nationwide D.A.R.E. program has its share of doubters, Sheriff Graves agrees with the parents and students that it was worthwhile. He just doesn't have the money or manpower to offer it anymore.
"That was probably the last non-mandatory program that the sheriff's department did (in earnest) so we had to cut it," Graves said. "It's a priority to get (deputies) to calls and to handle the calls that are out there. That's the mandatory duty of the sheriff."
Graves believes the preventative training is well worth it, considering it costs $68 per day to house an inmate in the county jail. Some schools are searching for alternative education plans to replace D.A.R.E., and others have their local police departments coordinating the D.A.R.E. program, Grave said.
However, finding appropriate funds for county-run D.A.R.E. when still more deputies are needed will be difficult.
Supervisor Bob Arnold has asked the county board to consider using money from the undesignated fund balance to pay for a D.A.R.E. officer to head back into the schools.
The request will likely be transferred back to the finance committee for review.
The county board nixed the D.A.R.E. program during its budget adoption process last fall. It allowed the sheriff's department to save money by not having to hire another patrol deputy, Graves said. It did not reduce the county tax levy.