Missoula County expands on old anti-drug program

The Missoula County Sheriff's Department has decided to just say no to DARE, the national Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education program.

In its place, the Sheriff's Department recently kicked off a new program in county schools called CLASS - "Citizenship Leadership and Student Safety."

Like other local law enforcement agencies, including the Missoula City Police Department, the Sheriff's Department decided it would be better off with its own program instead of paying to use the DARE program.

"Our general thought is this will give us better involvement with the entire grade school system," said Doug Chase, the Missoula County sheriff. "Certainly our subject matter will be considerably broader. DARE restricted us to the fifth and sixth grades. … This will allow us contact with first grade on up."

Sheriff's Deputy Joe McNeal, who helped design the CLASS program, said the new format is more flexible.

"DARE is an expensive program to run. If we're going to spend the money, we wanted to come up with a program more suitable to the needs of Missoula County," McNeal said. "We wanted something not as structured. We wanted something where the officers who teach the program feel more comfortable."

McNeal, who has served as a school resource officer at Frenchtown High School for the past three years, said the CLASS program is an extension of the school resource program.

"It will help us teach about citizenship, leadership and student safety," McNeal said. "We want to talk about the juvenile justice system so kids understand it better. And we want to talk about the consequences."

McNeal and Deputy Richard Eggett will visit schools in Missoula County that are not covered by the "Police Reaching Out to Students" program offered by the Missoula Police Department.

So far, McNeal said Frenchtown, Hellgate Elementary, Bonner, Clinton, Lolo, Target Range and DeSmet schools have signed on with the new program. He said the department hopes to have all Missoula County schools on board by next year.

Every grade six, seven and eight class will receive three visits from deputies during the school year. Classes of K-5 students can expect at least one visit a year, McNeal said.

Along with deputies, the Montana Highway Patrol will be enlisted to talk about bicycle and bus safety; Missoula Rural Fire will talk about fire safety; and 9-1-1 personnel will give kids advice on how to make emergency telephone calls.

Chase said the program will give schoolchildren an opportunity to view law enforcement officers in a different setting.

"The ability to put any number of our officers into a classroom … gives kids a chance to see different faces," Chase said.

He said the program will also benefit his officers.

"It gets them out of their patrol cars and into schools where they get to know the personnel and administrators," Chase said. "And most of our officers are family people who enjoy being around young people."

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