D.A.R.E. program celebrates 25 years

STEUBENVILLE – In 1989, Drug Abuse Resistance Education was a new phenomenon in law enforcement. The idea was to take a police officer, place him in the classroom as a teacher for part of a school year and have the officer help students learn to make good decisions about drugs and alcohol.

Patrolman Anthony Piergallini remembers that he was walking down the hall in the old police station on South Third Street one day when then-Chief Ernie Belli stopped him and told him about a new program being backed by then-Ohio Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze.

Piergallini, now retired, said, “He said they need someone to go into elementary schools and talk to kids from time to time about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Are you interested?”

It changed him and it changed his career for his remaining 17 years on the department.

D.A.R.E. was established in 1983 in Los Angeles through the work of Police Chief Darryl Gates and Ruth Rich of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Piergallini recalled. Los Angeles implemented the program piecemeal because it didn’t have the manpower to put a D.A.R.E. educator in each school, but it was then able to compare schools with D.A.R.E. to schools without the program and found that the curriculum was working. It then began to move across the country, with Celebrezze backing Ohio’s first D.A.R.E. officers class in 1989, including Piergallini.

He was followed by J.P. Rigaud, who has left the police department but stopped by to talk about D.A.R.E.’s 25th anniversary in Steubenville with Piergallini and current D.A.R.E. officer Erik Dervis. Between trading stories about training and keeping the program going, the men discussed what D.A.R.E. means to them. It’s a tale of training by a world-recognized program. It’s a tale of children’s lives being changed, and those of the officers, too.

Piergallini set the program up and got it going in Steubenville as the first D.A.R.E. program in the region.

“What these guys didn’t have to do was to make a presentation to City Council to establish the program and get permission to go to the board of education to see if they’d let us in the schools. Then I had to make a presentation to (retired superintendent) Dan Keenan. He could be an intimidating man,” Piergallini recalled with a smile.

He also had to help set up funding for the program, and he recalls he and his wife, Leslie, filling out and folding and mailing letters to every business in town. The response was good, he said.

After the intensive two-week D.A.R.E. training program, Piergallini set out to teach in multiple classes in five public and two Catholic elementary school classrooms for 17 weeks each year.

The program has since been reduced through the modifications constantly being made by the D.A.R.E. organization to 10 weeks. And, in Steubenville, participation is down to one public and one Catholic elementary school, with two fifth-grade classes at Bishop John King Mussio Elementary School and seven at Harding Middle School.

“Two buildings,” Piergallini exclaimed. He said at one point, given his longevity in the D.A.R.E. program and the city’s shrinking population, that he had taught about 20 percent of the city’s population.

Dervis and Rigaud said the teachings by many families about police officers haven’t changed from Piergallini’s days, and those of their youth: When kids see an officer, a parent is apt to say that if the child messes up, the officer will put them in jail.

“A big plus to this in my eyes was that if you put an officer in an elementary school classroom talking to kids at their level, not talking down to them, if you communicate with them, now you are not the frightening men in the blue uniforms with badges who are going to put you away,” Piergallini said. “Now, you are human beings. You are friendly guys. A lot of people still don’t understand the concept of how important this is.”

Dervis, who has been the city’s D.A.R.E. officer for two years, said he already sees the difference.

“A couple of kids were in these classes on my first day and they would roll their eyes or have their head down on the desk. Then, after 10 weeks and graduation from the program, they were different,” Dervis said. “I was out on patrol (recently) when I saw two girls who were smiling and waving. It does reach them, it does. The lessons let them know cops are not the enemy, no matter what you are told on the street, and that they’re there to help you. We’re here to help you make the right choices, to be responsible and make safe choices.”

Piergallini said that when he prepared to retire, he was happy that Police Chief Bill McCafferty wanted to keep D.A.R.E. going. It was Piergallini’s turn to stop someone and ask if they wanted to be the D.A.R.E. officer.

“At the time, when Tony asked me, I was very hesitant. For one thing, I always screwed up what the acronym was,” Rigaud joked. “I saw it as an honor, but I was also scared.”

At the time, the juvenile division of the police department, where Rigaud worked, was undergoing a personnel shift and he wasn’t sure what kind of support he’d have. But, he said Sgt. Kenny Anderson was assigned as the supervisor and Dervis was being assigned to the division, so he saw there would be time to go teach.

Rigaud said while the relationships with children improve the work of police officers, D.A.R.E. training made him a better investigator.

“We already were working hard in the division on a lot of training on how to come down to a child’s level and listen with their perspective and understand how their brain works. D.A.R.E. was some of the best training I ever had as a police officer,” Rigaud said. “It just fit perfectly with what I was doing, with forensic interviewing. Going into the classroom was just one more opportunity to connect.”

Rigaud said the job did get difficult after the layoffs in the police department in 2009. Although the schools had consolidated, the lesson weeks had been reduced and there were fewer children than when Piergallini started as D.A.R.E. officer, he still had an increasing caseload to face when he got back to the office in mid-afternoon. There was less time to hang out with the children at the schools.

But Rigaud did help provide funding and build up the D.A.R.E. account through a successful annual sports memorabilia auction, which he said Anderson was instrumental in helping get started.

“It helped us have an account bigger than most of the chief’s accounts at the time, but that was because everybody knew about the program and had no problem backing it. There was no debate here. People said it works and always said it makes a difference,” Rigaud said.

Funding now also comes through the work of the Jefferson County Drug Task Force’s seizures, the officers noted.

Dervis had worked with Rigaud and had seen how children lit up when he walked into a classroom. When Rigaud prepared to move on in his career, Dervis went to the training.

“Chief McCafferty asked me if I wanted to take the reins. Those two weeks of classes were the most intense training I’ve ever had. It was like being in college again. I was doing homework until 11:30 at night. There wasn’t time even to go to the lounge to interact with other officers,” he said.

The D.A.R.E. training and curriculum that Dervis uses are different from what Piergallini had. There weren’t cellphones and sexting, social media or an epidemic of bullying back in 1989.

Along the way, Rigaud said, surveys by outside organizations have shown D.A.R.E. statistically makes a difference in schools. Rigaud said the difference between resource officers and D.A.R.E. officers is that the D.A.R.E. officer is in the school first as an educator. He said D.A.R.E. does dual-track training and he finished his training certified for D.A.R.E. and resource officer work. The school resource officers are there more as a liaison betwen the school and other agencies responsible for children, Piergallini said.

The training, (“The toughest two-week training you will ever do as a police officer,” according to Piergallini) touches on classroom management, time management, public speaking, fundraising, scheduling and the curriculum itself. Officers who are nominated by their departments are not automatically accepted into D.A.R.E., Rigaud said. Piergallini said the program doesn’t want officers that municipalities are simply trying to get off the street for other problems, but officers who are dedicated to the program.

Piergallini said the training is so intense that after the first week, when he came home, he wasn’t sure he would go back. He said now-retired officer Joe McCullough helped him decide to finish the training.

And, D.A.R.E. changed his life.

Piergallini said he had been callous and cold after returning to the job after a two-year layoff in the mid-1980s. He was angry at the world.

“I couldn’t see the good in anybody,” he said. “D.A.R.E. was a real eye-opening experience for me. If we can get to these young people and show them there is another life out there not involving drugs and alcohol, to try to keep themselves safe and to make the right decisions I saw hope. I saw light at the end of the tunnel and it wasn’t a train approaching,” he said.

Dervis said as a patrolman, officers often see the same people in trouble every day.

“And there are babies having babies. D.A.R.E. just opened my eyes. If I do have to approach kids while working patrol on a call involving juveniles, I know more about how to talk to them as a first responder as opposed to later as a detective or in followup. I’m glad I did it. It’s an honor taking the reins on what he (Piergallini) started and what he (Rigaud) accomplished. I’m honored,” he said.

Piergallini said D.A.R.E. works as part of triangle with schools and parents.

“If you put the three together and they work properly, you can’t destroy this. No program is 100 percent foolproof, and how can you prove prevention? But, when you compare drug activities and school violence and bullying in schools that don’t have D.A.R.E. to those that do, you see the difference,” he said.

Rigaud said the D.A.R.E. organization remains very active in the area of education, modifying what works and providing information about what officers need to know to bring that information down to a level that doesn’t encourage children to experiment.

“It’s presented with simplicity, baked by numbers that we give to them. D.A.R.E. keeps its officers current on things,” he said.

Rigaud said if people don’t believe statistics, there are individual stories among officers.

For instance, he said he was interviewing a child on a case involving an adult trying to push marijuana on a girl. The girl repeatedly denied to Rigaud that she had used marijuana.

“I had more information about this adult and I knew he had been very persistent and used marijuana a lot. I kept asking her if she was sure she hadn’t taken the marijuana. She stopped me.

“‘You told me the dangers of it in D.A.R.E. class,’ she said. This was years after I had her in class. It’s an individual situation, but I believe those individual situations are very consistent” among D.A.R.E. officers, Rigaud said.

Dervis, who returns to the city’s fifth-grade classrooms later this month, said, “Kids want to learn. They aren’t being given this kind of heads-up education at home or with friends or neighbors or while they’re out playing football. They want to know more about it.

“You want to impact every student, but if you reach just one child, it’s a victory. You made a difference. That child won’t reach for a beer or a cigarette or hang out with violent groups. They’ll make responsible decisions for themselves,” Dervis said.