Manchester schools look at drug abuse prevention program for middle schoolers

More than 10 years after the school district dropped the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, a panel is recommending the Manchester school board adopt a new drug abuse prevention program in city middle schools.

Members of the Committee on Curriculum and Instruction have voted unanimously to recommend partnering with New Jersey-based Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LEAD) starting next fall.

LEAD programs are already operating in other New Hampshire towns and cities.

Rob Seaward, superintendent of schools for the Winnisquam Regional School District, said the program has worked well in local middle schools.

“When this first came to me we had parents getting arrested and going to jail, parents dying,” said Seaward. “We were desperate for something to work with our kids on. We heard from the first group of kids in this program and they said the program had given them an avenue to speak to someone, and open up and discuss what’s going on in their lives.”

LEAD’s Too Good for Drugs curriculum is evidence-based, goes beyond a just-say-no-message, and includes lessons on bullying and violence, according to program literature provided to Manchester’s school board members.

Organizers say the cost is minimal and involves the purchase of workbooks. Manchester school officials say there will be no financial impact if the program is adopted, as they are looking at using grant funding.

According to school officials, the LEAD program is less restrictive than DARE, and allows officials to tailor the program to the needs of a community.

In Tilton’s first year in the program, six police officers and six teachers taught LEAD middle school classes every Friday for 12 weeks.

“I have been a police officer for 36 years and have worked at departments of all sizes,” said Tilton Police Chief Robert Cormier. “In all of my years of experience, I have yet to see another program like this. After a year of implementing LEAD, I surveyed kids on how they liked the program and, surprisingly for a group of middle schoolers, no one had anything bad to say. Most students loved it, as did my officers and the teachers they worked with.”

He said the program gets kids out of their seats, describing many of the lessons as like one-act plays.

“It’s really been a home run for us,” said Cormier. “We’ve started to be approached by other school districts across the state. Now it’s in 22 states and we’ve trained officers and teachers and superintendents from all over the state. From Portsmouth to Concord, from Hanover to Pembroke, everyone that adopts it really likes it.”

“We find the program coming up in conversations in the hallways,” said Winnisquam’s Seaward. “Kids will connect with the program and it resonates with them. Kids go home and mention it to their parents.”

Nick Demauro, executive director of the program, said the first five lessons focus on decision making, and social and emotional learning techniques. The last five lessons focus on ways of developing resistance skills against various drugs, including alcohol, tobacco and over-the-counter prescription medication.

According to Demauro, the LEAD curriculum was developed by the not-for-profit Mendez Foundation, which spent years studying what methods work for drug prevention. He said LEAD is a brainchild of police chiefs and school superintendents from New Jersey, who wanted to implement a proven method of teaching drug prevention.

Manchester co-superintendent of school Jennifer Gillis said the district is looking to introduce the program to sixth- or seventh-graders in all four middle schools next fall.

“We’ve had conversations going back and forth on what grade is the logical starting point,” said Gillis. “We’re looking at starting small and building capacity with time.”

Currently, Manchester middle schools offer the “Mirror Project” to eighth-grade students, aimed at teaching young minorities how to deal with police. LEAD will not replace that program, and will be aimed at younger students.