Nearly 80 students at East Hamilton Middle School have graduated from the county's first DARE program in almost 20 years.
The students, in sixth and eighth grade, received certificates and their own iconic DARE T-shirts after completing 10 weeks of classes on drug use, violence, decision-making and interpersonal relationships.
"It's not just about drugs and alcohol," said East Hamilton Middle School Resource Deputy Rodney Brown, who led the program, in an interview after Friday's ceremony. "There are some social aspects to it. A lot of it, post-COVID being back in school and in a structured environment, we're teaching social cues and maturity, conflict resolution and communication."
As the largest middle school in the county, East Hamilton was chosen to pilot the new program, which Sheriff Austin Garrett said Friday he made a priority to restart after taking office last year. DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is used by law enforcement agencies in schools across the nation.
Younger students at the Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts also piloted the program this year and are set to graduate in May, Brown said Friday. Brown and the deputy stationed at CSLA both completed 80 hours of training last year to qualify as DARE instructors, according to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
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The program also helps school resource deputies form stronger relationships with children at their schools, Brown said, which officials said can help bridge gaps between law enforcement and the community.
The classes took place once a week, during the students' computer science classes, said teacher Abigail McDonald. McDonald, who sat in on each session, said she's glad the program teaches students to identify trusted adults they can go to for help, including Brown.
"I think the things they talked about, too, I think made them a lot more comfortable about going to him for things," McDonald said in an interview. "He's not just someone in our hallway, he knows us and we can talk to him."
The DARE program was last used in Hamilton County schools in 2005, according to reports from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, after coming to the county in 1990. Both the city and county discontinued it after finding it was too expensive and its actual effectiveness was difficult to measure, officials told the paper at the time. Information on the cost of the new program wasn't available Friday.
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Studies from the early 2000s suggested that students who participated in DARE went on to use drugs, tobacco and alcohol at roughly the same rates as those who didn't. But, Brown said, the curriculum has been redesigned and updated multiple times in recent years and now also includes information on newer drugs and internet safety.
Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp said she wished she could have participated in DARE as a student.
When she asked the students Friday which ones knew what her office does, no hands went up.
"Police officers will take you to jail," Wamp told the students. "The district attorney decides how long you're going to stay in jail. Both in juvenile court and my office, we are the ones to decide the punishment when you get in trouble."
Wamp said the DARE graduates are now responsible for stopping themselves and their friends from ending up in trouble in the first place -- by discouraging someone from taking an unknown pill at an after-prom party or taking away a friend's keys when they're too drunk to drive.
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"Every day my staff and I encounter individuals whose lives have been ruined by the terrible effects and destructions of illegal and prescription drug abuse," Garrett, the sheriff, said during Friday's ceremony. "We see individuals who, as a result of substance abuse, have succumbed to peer pressure and poor decision-making."
Wamp's brother, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, also spoke to students Friday about being leaders in their community, even at a young age.
"Generally speaking, when you're young, you get to have fun," he said. "But you get to middle school, and if you're not careful, you'll make decisions that will stick with you for the rest of your life."
Contact Ellen Gerst at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6319.