Program the last in Kent County
by BETH ALTENA
Rockford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael Shibler and Rockford Police Chief Dave Jones can’t understand the reasoning for Algoma Township’s decision to discontinue their $5,000-a-year funding of the D.A.R.E. program, and they aren’t taking it quietly.
Plainfield Township is also taking a hard look at their budget and had a discussion on whether to continue to fund the D.A.R.E. program. With revenue down across the board in municipalities in Michigan, including the City of Rockford, many government organizations are looking longer and harder at every service they offer, but Jones and Shibler don’t believe D.A.R.E. should fall to the wayside.
On Monday, Nov. 29, Jones, Shibler and representatives from the Parent Teacher Organizations of each Rockford school attended a wake-up call meeting at Rockford City Hall to discuss the funding and future of D.A.R.E.
“If Algoma doesn’t come around, if we lose Plainfield, we’re done,” Jones said.
The D.A.R.E. program is much more than an anti-drug lesson, described Rockford’s D.A.R.E. officer Dave Jehnzen. It is a program that encourages good decision-making with lessons that ideally last a lifetime. Every student in the district takes part in D.A.R.E. in the fifth- and sixth-grade levels, and Jehnzen said that if it helps even a few kids avoid behaviors that lead to criminal activity or drug use, it is a no-brainer with the annual cost of $67,000 split between the City of Rockford and the townships who have students in the district.
Jones said the program was originally offered by the Michigan State Police, which cancelled it due to budget cuts 10 years ago. Determined to continue D.A.R.E., the Rockford Police Department took on the program for Rockford Public Schools, and established funding by splitting the costs with Plainfield and Cannon townships each at $10,000 a year, Algoma and Courtland townships—with only part of their students in the Rockford district—at $5,000 a year each, the City of Rockford at $10,000, Rockford Public Schools at $12,500, and Our Lady of Consolation Church contributing $2,500. That total of $55,000 is still short of the entire funding by $12,000, which is currently made up with contributions from groups and an annual D.A.R.E. golf outing held by the Rockford Police Department on volunteer time.
“This is totally dependent on each of us supporting each other,” Jones said of the decade-old agreement. He believes a $5,000 or even $10,000 commitment to the program is an immense value, given the scope of the program and the fact that it is attended by every student in the district.
Jehnzen also explained to the audience that Rockford offers mini-D.A.R.E. lessons to elementary-age students, teaching them, among other things, how to be safer on the Internet, the danger of bullying, and role-plays scenarios. Following the full D.A.R.E. program in middle school, Jehnzen said there is a follow-up in eighth grade as well as his presence in high school as the police liaison.
“Even in high school those kids flock to their D.A.R.E. officer like they did when they were little,” Jehnzen said.
Jones said part of the problem explaining the importance of D.A.R.E. is that it is hard to quantify the effects on the students who go through it. Studies have showed that for every $1 spent on preventative programs such as D.A.R.E., $10 is saved to the community. He pointed out that the cost of rehabilitating a drug addict is around $100,000 and Jones guessed that a year in jail costs between $35,000 to $50,000.
“You have to reach these kids before adolescence if you want them to have conversations about issues,” Jones said. “When they become teenagers, they aren’t talking. I’m a crusty old copper, but I care about kids and their issues.”
Jones and Shibler encouraged those present and others in the community to let their elected officials know D.A.R.E. is important to them and needs to continue in Rockford Public Schools.
“I understand budget concerns, and I am one hundred percent committed to D.A.R.E. forever,” Shibler stated. He noted that the Rockford Police Department is as well, and has not raised the cost of contributing once in the 10 years. “I am committed to this and I have had to cut $9 million from my budget in the past three years. It irritates the heck out of me that a couple townships are thinking of dropping it.”
According to Jones, other districts are on the verge of losing D.A.R.E. After this semester the Kent County Sheriff’s Department is dropping out, leaving Rockford as the only D.A.R.E. program left in Kent County.
Jones said it was important to be in front of the issue, rather than waiting to hear another funding body drop out, and pointed out that once a program is discontinued, it is much more difficult to get it started again.
“This is a really important program. We will never be able to say for sure how many lives we’ve touched. People ask me what would it be like without a D.A.R.E. program. I don’t want to find out, because I don’t want to know what our community would be like without D.A.R.E.”
Dr. Shibler said he hopes parents will take the time to call their township and explain how important the program is. “You can’t afford not to support and fund this program.”