Fifth-graders fill out D.A.R.E. workbooks during a lesson at Soldotna Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 28. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

‘Just say no,’ no more

D.A.R.E. — the ubiquitous anti-drug campaign of the 1980s and 1990s — has come a long way since the days of “just say no.”

Launched in 1983 to explicitly tackle illegal drug use with a strict focus on the negative consequences of substance abuse, the D.A.R.E. program now focuses on developing life skills and giving kids the tools to make responsible decisions.

“The whole goal is to educate them to resist using drugs,” Soldotna Police Officer Tobin Brennan said. “But the way that they do that is not through scare tactics, but through life skills.”

Brennan, who teaches D.A.R.E. courses to about 150 fifth graders at Soldotna, Redoubt and Kalifornsky Beach elementary schools, said that although D.A.R.E. still officially stands for “drug abuse resistance education,” the acronym is now used to describe a different set of priorities: “define, assess, respond, evaluate.”

A new approach

No longer are classes built around directives from instructors — instead students are encouraged to work together on exercises that emphasize core concepts. Students answer questions in a “keeping’ it REAL” workbook that covers a number of decision-making tools, including communication styles, identifying risky situations, responding to pressure, bullying, stress and making responsible choices.

Brennan, who has been giving the course for seven years, said when he first began teaching the program, the curriculum included two days on alcohol and tobacco abuse with an optional lesson on bullying.

Now, the substance abuse lesson has been winnowed to one day, and bullying is a core component of the curriculum.

Brennan said the two key messages he hopes kids will take away from the course is an ability to work through decisions they’ve made — so they can better understand the consequences of their actions — and to be comfortable around police.

“I don’t want them to be scared of police,” he said.

Building life skills

At Soldotna Elementary School Wednesday, kids sat in pods during an hour-long course discussing “help networks.”

Brennan prompted students to identify times they needed and asked for help, and who provided the help. Students eagerly piped up to answer Brennan’s questions — sharing times someone offered them a pencil, helped them retrieve lost candy or provided help with a book report.

Kids then broke into teams and competed to identify glossary terms they had learned during the program. The session ended with students watching a video about Alaska teenagers, who described how they use D.A.R.E. skills to make better life choices.

As Brennan wrapped up the last class of the year, he left students with a final thought: “It’s up to you to make the right decision.”

The D.A.R.E. course will be capped off with a graduation ceremony Friday — the highlight of which will be the announcement of a grand-prize essay contest winner, who gets to take home a new mountain bike and “Daren,” a decorated stuffed lion that has been keeping Brennan company in his patrol car throughout this year’s D.A.R.E. course.

The ceremony will be followed by a student “lock-in” — an overnight slumber party that doubles as a fundraiser for the Soldotna High School swim team.

Reach Erin Thompson at ethompson@peninsulaclarion.com.

A student fills out a D.A.R.E. workbook during a lesson at Soldotna Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 28. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Police Officer Tobin Brennan discusses a D.A.R.E. lesson on “help networks” with fifth-grade students at Soldotna Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 28. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Students participate in a D.A.R.E. course at Soldotna Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 28. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Police Officer Tobin Brennan discusses a lesson with a student during a D.A.R.E. class at Soldotna Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 18. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Police Officer Tobin Brennan quizzes fifth-graders on D.A.R.E. glossary terms during a lesson at Soldotna Elementary School on Feb. 28. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Elementary School students participate in a D.A.R.E. lesson on Wednesday, Feb. 28. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna Police Officer Tobin Brennan shows off “Daren,” a stuffed lion who has been decorated by students throughout a 10-week D.A.R.E. course on Wednesday, Feb. 28. The winner of a D.A.R.E. essay contest will be awarded a new mountain bike and the stuffed animal at a graduation ceremony on Friday, March 2. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)

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