DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is a global initiative that sends police officers into schools to teach kids first-hand the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
DARE had been a mainstay of a Fair Lawn education for 20 years before the program was eliminated last year because of an understaffed police force that couldn’t afford to both teach the program and maintain classic law enforcement duties, Chief Erik Rose said.
“The decision to eliminate DARE was one of the most difficult I’ve ever made,” he said. “But we must focus on core police services…I can’t sit and say we’ll have DARE but no police to respond to a call.”
A state police study that used staffing data from late 2009, found that Fair Lawn’s police force was understaffed in comparison to other police departments in Bergen County and across the state.
Since the study was conducted, layoffs and retirements have reduced the police staff even further. Fair Lawn currently has 54 officers, down from 64 at the time of the study.
Of the 54 officers currently on staff, three are on long-term disability, and a fourth is out temporarily with an injury, leaving the effective police force at 50 officers.
Rose said he wouldn’t feel comfortable resuming the DARE program until the police staff had an effective force of at least 58 officers, which due to the ebb and flow of injuries that officers inevitably face, means more like a total force of about 60 officers.
Earlier this year, council approved the hiring of two more officers that would bring the total police force to 56. Rose, who is currently interviewing to fill those positions, said he applauded council for its decision to increase the force, but didn't feel comfortable resuming the program quite yet.
"I don’t want to commit to DARE unless we think we can keep it up and complete the program," he said.
Even without police officers to teach it, Fair Lawn schools have continued components of the DARE program, Rose said. But without officers in the schools, the program fails to serve one of its essential functions: fostering relationships between the police and the community.
“The principal of DARE is to have the officers, active duty, in uniform, in the school with kids,” he said. “Not just teaching, but interacting, developing a rapport or a bond with students that carries over after the school day ends and even after DARE for that child ends."
Det. David Boone, who taught DARE in Fair Lawn schools for many years, said it had a “tremendous” impact on kids because it allowed them to build a personal connection with police officers from an early age that extended through their teenage years.
When kids know police officers and view them as individuals rather than as a collective force, it reduces their fear and apprehension about law enforcement, Boone said.
He called the educational trifecta of school, police and parents, “the only way we win with kids.”
The DARE program started at St. Anne school in 1989, and quickly spread to the rest of the Fair Lawn School District the following year.
DARE offered a 45-minute class for students from kindergarten through eighth grade, once a week for up to 10 weeks, depending on the grade. Class lessons included peer pressure, self-esteem, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, cyber bullying and a gang component, Boone said.