Detective Ken Minika, with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, calls on a student for an answer during a D.A.R.E. lesson in Ms. Anissa Laney’s fifth-grade class.
Peeking inside the window of a fifth-grade classroom in Halfway Elementary School, neat rows of desks and chairs filled with young students come into view. The kids look ahead at the instructor intently with pencils poised above colorful workbooks, awaiting the right moment to fill in the next blank on their worksheets.
They are completely zoned in to the lesson at hand, oblivious to all distractions.
Although it may seem familiar, one element makes this scene unique from the normal school setting.
Instead of a teacher standing at the front of the room, Polk County Detective Ken Minica, decked out in his Class A uniform, paces back and forth, talking over the lesson with the students.
This unusual scene is now commonplace throughout the county as the sheriff’s office has reintroduced Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., to Polk County schools after a six-year hiatus.
Minica and Sgt. Abe Dickerson recently started teaching D.A.R.E. curriculum to fifth-graders in the Humansville, Fair Play, Marion C. Early and Halfway school districts. Dickerson said they hope to get Pleasant Hope involved soon once a schedule can be ironed out.
“This lets us interact with the kids (in a positive way), because sometimes that only happens when something major happens in their lives,” Minica said. “I think they just enjoy us being there.”
“I’m enjoying every minute of it,” Dickerson said. “So far, the response from the kids is, ‘Can you stay all day?’ or ‘Can you come back tomorrow?’”
While the Bolivar R-1 school district continued to offer the program to its students through the Bolivar Police Department, D.A.R.E. was the casualty of cuts to the sheriff’s office budget in 2011.
This year, the Polk County Commission was able “to work it back into the budget,” Dickerson said.
Minica said Polk County “is fortunate because our sheriff used to be a D.A.R.E. officer” and was determined to bring the program back.
Both Minica and Dickerson said they are excited to be in local classrooms, sharing an updated version of the D.A.R.E. message.
“Years ago, when they first started the D.A.R.E. program, it was more about making the students aware of what kinds of drugs are out there and to say no to them,” Dickerson said. “Now the program itself is used to basically take experiences from children their age and present it to them in a way to help them make better choices in their own lives … I’m teaching (the kids) about the choices, not the drug.”
Dickerson said the updated program is “about drugs, about violence, about peer pressure, about bullying. It covers all aspects of things they can run into while in school.”
Anissa Laney, fifth-grade teacher in Halfway, said D.A.R.E. provides her students “a safe environment where they can discuss their concerns about alcohol, tobacco, drugs and bullying without the worries of offending someone or making them mad.”
Laney, who said D.A.R.E. is “a very important program that all fifth-graders should have to take,” commented that the program moves beyond just drug and alcohol prevention.
“They’re being taught reliable information and are given strategies on how to handle different types of situations,” she said. “They’re learning how to communicate their concerns in a responsible way.”
Laney said she likes that D.A.R.E. gives kids facts about alcohol and tobacco use, but she also appreciates that it gives students decision-making skills and help with peer pressure and bullying.
“I like that the students have their own workbooks,” Laney said. “They are given different situations, and the students have to explain how they would handle it.”
Minica and Dickerson, as first-time D.A.R.E. instructors, had to become students themselves before they could start teaching the program in schools.
Calling the classwork “very strenuous,” the pair said they spent two weeks in training, learning not only the ins and outs of the program, but also learning how to teach.
Minica and Dickerson said it helped to go through the training together and to be partners in their new venture, sharing notes and advice on lessons they’ve taught.
Both said they are amazed at how quickly the kids have picked up on the information they’re sharing.
“They’re smart,” Minica said. “They really are. For me, I’ve been surprised with how much they know. It seems like they pick it up really quickly.”
“It is amazing to see,” Dickerson said. “When you ask them a question, they can give you an answer. When I was in fifth grade, I wouldn’t have even known where to start.”
While Minica and Dickerson are impressed with their students, the kids seemingly feel the same way about their instructors.
“I like having Deputy Minica come to my classroom to teach D.A.R.E., because he teaches kids at a young age that doing drugs can and will cause health problems or maybe death,” said Halfway student Rea Spear. “So when we get older we won’t even think about doing drugs, alcohol or tobacco.”
Halfway student Lucy Lawler said she likes the D.A.R.E. program because Minica is “really nice and he’s teaching us how to say no to alcohol and drugs.”
The students said they are excited to see what the deputies teach them next.
“I’m excited about learning how to stay safe and how to take care of our bodies by not doing drugs or alcohol,” said Halfway student Kent Mayfield.
Some students even plan to pass the message onto others.
Spear said she’s excited to learn more about the effects of drugs, alcohol and tobacco “so that people in my class can tell the people they know what it can do to them.”