Last week’s “06880” post on the Westport Police Department’s new H2 Hummer noted that its primary use is as a DARE vehicle.
Predictably, some of our readers got their knickers in a knot.
They knocked DARE — the national Drug Abuse Resistance Education program — for failing to keep kids off drugs and alcohol.
Others defended it as providing a great opportunity to initiate introspection and conversations about an important topic.
Sensing a great chance to get out of my next speeding ticket learn more about the program, I called Westport’s 2 DARE point people: captain Foti Koskinas and officer Ned Batlin.
When Koskinas joined the force 14 years ago, DARE was already underway. He knows from experience it’s not perfect — but he considers the alternative.
“It’s frustrating that educated people think a program like this — or any one — can eliminate drug use,” Koskinas says.
“We look at DARE as a way to reach out to 5th graders. We help them know there are consequences — health, legal, you name it — to their actions.
Koskinas admits, “We don’t have the resources to deter everyone from using drugs. This is just part of a team effort between police, teachers, families and kids.”
Koskinas adds, “We know kids experiment. That’s reality. It’s unrealistic to expect every kid to not succumb to peer pressure. But if we get our message across to some kids — or even one — then that’s a success.”
DARE is funded by the Police Department. Costs include Batlin’s time, as well as t-shirts, booklets and training materials.
Koskinas says, “We think it’s important to build relationships with kids. We want them to see the police as more than flashing lights and emergencies.”
Batlin’s job as DARE officer is to develop 1-on-1 relationships with students. As a Westport native and former student here — Koskinas is toow — Batlin understands the 5th-grade mind.
As a football and wrestling coach, Batlin also serves as an important role model.
“I’ve gotten great feedback,” he says. “We have a conversation in class. A student goes home, and starts a dinner table conversation that never would have started otherwise. DARE can be a great ice-breaker.”
Those conversations take interesting turns. One student told his mother, “Mom, we can’t have marinara. It’s bad for you.”
But another 5th grader asked Batlin, “When do we talk about cocaine and heroin?”
“I’d rather have them ask me that question, than another 5th grader,” Batlin says.
When he included roofies in his drug kit, he avoided the other term: “date rape.” But a youngster knew. He’d heard about it on “CSI.”
“These kids are being exposed to this stuff,” Batlin notes. “You can’t hide from it.”
He approaches his task with a combination of urgency, earnestness, realism — and humor.
“I tell them the ‘A’ in DARE stands for ‘abuse,'” Batlin says. “It’s not about them thinking their parents can’t have a beer at a cookout, or wine with dinner.”
Batlin asks the 5th graders if they like dessert. Of course! they say.
Well, he counters, would it be good to have a whole pie, instead of one piece?
No! they respond. And then they start thinking.
Sometimes, Batlin picks the biggest 5th grader in the room. He tells the kid he’ll give him $100 if he can beat Batlin in arm wrestling. Then he says, “Do you want to do it now, or when you’re 25?”
25! the youngster invariably says.
Why? Ned asks.
“‘Cause I’ll be bigger and stronger,” he replies.
Bingo! “You’ll be bigger and stronger mentally and emotionally too,” Batlin says.
Still, DARE has its critics. Koskinas addresses them, saying: “It’s hard for me to read comments on the blog about not getting through. Kids have told me — unsolicited — how great it is. And when I go to the graduation ceremony, I see genuine excitement among the 5th graders.
“I’m passionate about public service, and getting rid of the ‘blue wall’ — the perception that all the police do is arrest people.
“I realize there are 26,000 people in Westport, and not all of them are happy with us. We just do the best we can, and hope some of it sticks. I think DARE is a good, important part of that.”
“As important as DARE is for drug education, the relationship a child builds with a policeman through it is something they’ll keep for the rest of their lives.
“My phone rings all the time from parents with questions. Just the fact that they met me at a DARE graduation may make them feel comfortable enough to call.
“You know, it can be intimidating even for an adult to call the Police Department.”
Even on a DARE.