Student becomes teacher as Old Lyme resurrects DARE program
Meriden ― At the Connecticut State Police Training Academy last week, Officer Stephen Hackett of the Old Lyme Police Department stood in front of a group of law enforcement colleagues who were playing the role of fifth graders.
The class was Hackett’s test run as a Drug Abuse Resistance Education, known as DARE, instructor. It was part of an 80-hour session to prepare members of the 52nd Connecticut DARE Officer Training class for their newest role ― fighting peer pressure and encouraging kids to live drug free.
The rest of the 14-member training class feigned fifth-grade status even as they evaluated Hackett on his ability to keep them focused and engaged.
A native of Old Lyme, Hackett was poised to become the town’s first DARE instructor to be certified in more than 20 years. He transferred to the local police department from Old Saybrook in 2022 with 12 years of experience.
In response to a question from his mock students about why he became a police officer, he told them he was inspired back in elementary school by retired state trooper and Lyme-Old Lyme school resource officer Chris Olsen.
“I had a DARE officer, and I really looked up to my DARE officer,” Hackett said. “And I hoped someday I could do the same thing.”
Olsen left his post as DARE instructor around 2007.
The DARE program originated four decades ago in Los Angeles before arriving in Connecticut in 1988. But the widespread phenomenon eventually came under fire for lack of evidence that the “Just Say No” approach was effective on its own in deterring drug use.
The organization said its emphasis on lectures about specific drugs and their negative effects was replaced with an interactive format called “keepin’ it REAL.” The updated program is based on a framework from prevention scientists at Pennsylvania State University and Arizona State University to give kids the skills they need to think through their choices.
Resident State Trooper Matt Weber said the Old Lyme Police Department until recently had been well-represented in the school system through visits from his K-9 partner of nine years, Tazz. But his beloved dog died unexpectedly of a heart attack in November, 12 days after retiring from the force.
“This is a different tool to allow us to go interact with the kids on the friendly level that they’re used to, instead of just seeing us when we come to their parents’ house if there's a conflict,” he said.
Statewide DARE coordinator James White, of the Connecticut State Police, said the program is good science.
“It’s academically based. It’s peer reviewed,” he said. “We understand the efficacy of what we’re teaching now.”
The DARE framework at the fifth-grade level includes 10 lessons, with each one building on and reinforcing the previous sessions. Topics range from identifying risky situations, to signs of stress, to bullying. There are specialized units for fifth graders on opioids, as well as units for older students on vaping, social media safety and teen mental health.
White acknowledged the core unit doesn’t explicitly address the most modern forms of internet communication or nicotine consumption.
The workbook, copyrighted in 2015, uses examples involving email instead of social media posts and talks about smoking cigarettes instead of vaping. But White said those conversations “naturally shift” to more modern realities as students talk about their experiences.
“That’s what we want,” he said. “We want that student voice being heard.”
Back in the waning “Just Say No” days, the state Office of Legislative Research in 2010 reported there were still 120 out of 169 towns participating in the DARE program in Connecticut.
White said the most up-to-date figures show upward of 60 towns participating in the program in 2020. He’s still in the process of figuring out how many have reestablished the DARE framework after the pandemic disrupted face-to-face interaction.
The statewide DARE coordinator said he scheduled the winter training session based on demand.
“It’s been a very interesting time of growth post-COVID because people have used DARE as an opportunity to get officers involved in conversations in the classroom and provide more resources for students,” he said.
The legislative research report said the state until 2010 supplied school resource officers in towns covered by the state's 11 state police barracks or by resident state troopers, but discontinued the program to save an estimated $1.2 million.
Weber said the state paid for Hackett’s DARE training. The cost to the town will mainly involve backfilling the officer’s shifts if necessary when he’s in the schools.
Former Old Lyme First Selectman Tim Griswold recalled the state budget cuts as a factor in the discontinuation of the DARE program in town. He welcomed news of its return.
“I think the concept has a lot of merit because the officers ― be they state or local ― would interact with students, getting the ‘we vs. they’ away from the equation,” he said. “I think the students became more comfortable with officers and certain things that were troubling people could be discussed somewhat confidentially.”
In Hackett’s mock classroom this week, the day’s lesson centered on effective communication as an integral part of making responsible decisions and feeling empowered to follow through with them. He divided his “students” ― a diverse array of state troopers and police officers from towns including Groton, Ledyard, Clinton, Brookfield, Norwalk and points as far west as New York ― into pairs for an exercise in empathy.
He asked the students to act out emotions as he called them out. Then he asked them to report what they saw.
Groton Town Police Officer Sherif Afifi, an active and upbeat participant, was recognized by a classmate for “trying very hard to frown” when asked to fake sadness.
Hackett handed Afifi a DARE sticker for his effort.
“Thanks for trying,” Hackett said. “You’re Stone Cold Sherif, that’s what I’ve heard.”
While research going back to the start of the program has revealed mixed findings on effectiveness in terms of preventing drug use, there is widespread acknowledgment that DARE has strengthened ties between schools and law enforcement.
Afifi during a break in the training class said becoming a DARE officer will take his community policing role “to a new level.”
He said his job until now has revolved around dealing with adults. That often means going out on calls to places where kids reside, too.
“I wanted to connect with the kids because, at the end of the day, they go back to the same houses that we go to,” he said. “I want to have an impact as young as we can.”
Afifi, who is in his second career after working in human resources for a construction company, is a three-year member of the Groton Town Police Department.
“I like to say what I do is HR, but in an uncontrolled environment,” he said. “This is where policing is headed. It’s not about the next person to arrest; it’s ‘how do you prevent?’”
Olsen, the former school resource officer in Old Lyme, said in a phone interview last week his focus was always on breaking down barriers between students and the police.
He said he was humbled by Hackett’s decision to follow in his shoes.
Olsen resisted the idea that putting officers in schools exacerbates what critics describe as a school-to-prison pipeline resulting in more suspensions, expulsions and arrests.
He recalled early debate over whether officers should wear their uniforms in school. But he maintained students would get accustomed to the uniform and the people behind them.
“I think they did,” he said. “And clearly Stephen (Hackett) is an example of one who did.”
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