Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 21, 2023

D.A.R.E. offering fresh approach to drug prevention

School resource deputy anxious to update program she experienced

Sarah Riggle remembers signing her D.A.R.E. pledge and receiving her ribbon as a high school student in Mississippi in the ‘90s after sitting through a spate of slide presentations about the dangers of controlled drugs and the life-saving importance of saying no to them, she says.

This fall, Riggle, a school resource deputy with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, will be the face of the department’s recently resurrected D.A.R.E. program at Loftis Middle School. However, instead of urging students to “just say no,” she’ll be telling them to “keep it real.”

“Keepin’ it real” is a D.A.R.E. program designed to equip young people with facts about drugs and strategies for sidestepping the pitfalls that seem to inevitably lie in front of many of them. Based on an acronym for “refuse, explain, avoid or leave,” “Keepin’ it real” ultimately aims to teach youth about the devastating costs of drug use.

“You can flat out refuse to take what someone is offering, for example, or tell them why you don’t want to take it,” explains Riggle, 41. “The program focuses on the positive and negative consequences of every decision. The idea is to teach kids to look at the whole picture and make the right choice because they tend to not think about the consequences of their actions.”

Local law enforcement offered D.A.R.E. programs in Hamilton County in the past, but the curriculum sat dormant for nearly two decades before Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett took office in September. Part of Garrett’s vision for the department involved spearheading the deployment of the D.A.R.E. program through school resource deputies like Riggle, who have already developed relationships with the youth through their daily presence.

“I’m there every day from the moment they open the doors and the students arrive until everyone goes home. Our main focus is security, so we do door checks, watch cameras, and keep an eye open for anything significant,” Riggle notes. “We also build relationships with the kids. That can be as simple as striking up conversations with them and getting to know them so you can tell when they’re having a bad day and reach out to them.”

Creating bonds with the students also involves going into classrooms to discuss topics that are relevant to issues at the school.

“We have a general understanding of what the school needs,” Riggle continues. “If the kids are vaping, then we’ll do a presentation on vaping, or if they’re vandalizing the bathrooms, then I’ll teach them about vandalism and how it can get them in trouble.”

Sometimes, Riggle will simply spend time with the students in a fun and engaging manner. For example, she’s sat in on a music class and played her clarinet while wearing her uniform and gear. The idea, she says, is to create the kind of connections that open doors with students.

“Kids are more open to what you have to say when you’ve already spent time with them and expressed an interest in who they are.”

To be a D.A.R.E. instructor, candidates are vetted by D.A.R.E. mentors. The candidate must also be a P.O.S.T. (Peace Officer Standards & Training Commission) certified law enforcement officer with at least two years of service and complete a rigorous 80-hour training course conducted by experienced mentors and university-level educators.

This coursework does not include the many additional hours of study and afterhours work required to test for the certification.

When the leadership at the Sheriff’s Office asked Riggle if she’d like to become a D.A.R.E. instructor, she said she wasn’t sure if she’d be a good fit for the role. However, after reflecting on her experience in law enforcement and the time she’d spent connecting with the students at Loftis, she decided to take the plunge.

“I did patrol for a while and then became an SRD,” she says. “Being in a school felt more natural for me because I like interacting with people. When you’re on patrol, everything happens fast; you’ll meet someone and then you might never see them again. But at Loftis, I see the kids every day and can be the one who takes a little of the load off their shoulders when they’re struggling. I like it and feel like I have a knack for it.”

Riggle is the third Hamilton County SRD to become a D.A.R.E. instructor during Garrett’s tenure; she’s also the first woman with the department to complete the certification in nearly 20 years. When classes at Loftis begin this fall, she’ll follow in the footsteps of two fellow school resource deputies who have already graduated classes of around 80-each at Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts and East Hamilton Middle School.

Riggle says the curriculum she’ll offer at Loftis will differ greatly from the sit-and-listen approach she experienced as a high schooler. While sessions will involve instruction, she’ll also give the students an opportunity to share their minds and engage in what she says she hopes will be thought-provoking discussions.

“Kids want to do more than watch slide after slide after slide and listen to me say, ‘Do this; don’t do that.’ They like asking questions and getting your feedback.”

D.A.R.E. was founded in 1983 and has been implemented in thousands of schools throughout the U.S. and other countries. Beginning with kindergarteners and continuing through 12th grade, the modern national D.A.R.E. program teaches youth how to avoid involvement in drugs and gangs, as well as lead lives free from substance abuse and violence.

The HCSO is relaunching its D.A.R.E. program at a critical time in Hamilton County, says Matt Lea, public relations manager for the department.

“Overdoses are skyrocketing across the country and we’re seeing more and more illegal substances from Atlanta passing through Chattanooga as they move up. That means there’s a very good chance a lot of our kids will come across one of these drugs early in life.

“Our goal is to teach them to not use the drugs that might cross their path through a family member or other kids that are using them. We’re trying to give them the tools that will keep them from going down that path.”

Riggle says she was fortunate to be raised in an environment in which drugs were not “pushed on” her. At the same time, she’s patrolled the neighborhood Loftis serves and understands the youth there live in a world that’s very different from the one in which she grew up.

“When I saw some of the situations these kids were experiencing, I thought, ‘You shouldn’t even be thinking about these things at your age.’ Kids are introduced to drugs at a much earlier age than when I grew up, so the earlier we start teaching them, the better.”

“We used to think people didn’t get involved in drugs until their late teens,” adds Lea. “That’s no longer the case. Elementary school kids are subjected to them on a daily basis, depending on the areas in which they live. We needed this program back. If it stops one kid from going down the wrong path, it’ll be worth it.”

Riggle agrees and says she’s looking forward to walking the halls of Loftis when the new school year begins next month and to capitalizing on the relationships she established with its students last year.

“I’m excited about Sheriff Garrett bringing this program back to our schools because it’s going to be a tremendous help.”