Inside Ann Siple's classroom at Camarillo Heights School, 30 fresh-faced sixth-graders told stories the other day--tales of drugs, alcohol and gangs.
The children, most 11 and 12 years old, recounted their brushes with people who either were selling or using narcotics, or pushing gangs as a way to be cool.
Ventura County Sheriff's Deputy Kim Larson, the school's Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer, was hoping to generate such dialogue to keep her young students off drugs and out of gangs.
But unless officials can find about $135,000, Larson's message will not reach children in the other eight schools of the Pleasant Valley School District next year.
District officials, citing budgets too tight to initiate the program, are asking the city of Camarillo to pick up the tab--a request the council will examine during a special study session on Wednesday.
"These kids are at the point where they are starting to confront some very serious problems," Larson said. "It would be a shame if we couldn't get this message across based on expense."
Ventura County pays most of the costs of DARE at Camarillo Heights because the school is in county territory. The district wants the city to pay for expanding the nationally known anti-drug program to its other schools.
"It just comes down to having more priorities than funds," said Howard Hamilton, associate superintendent for the district. "I think we were as shocked by the costs as was the council. Still, we believe this is an important program."
Council member Charlotte Craven said that while she appreciates the need for such a program, she cannot easily justify the city bearing the burden.
"I'm concerned that we may not have the kind of money it will take to fund a program like this given other responsibilities," Craven said. "I'm also concerned about the overall effectiveness and would like to see how this program has impacted juvenile arrest rates in other cities where DARE has been established."
Mayor Ken Gose said that city coffers will be tight because of expected cost increases for police and other city services next year.
"Philosophically, I have a bit of a problem with our paying for what is essentially an educational function," Gose said. "I still need to study this, but I would have a hard time seeing us pay more than 50% of what they are asking."
But Senior Deputy Rick Barber, who supervises DARE programs in western Ventura County, said several cities in the county--including Thousand Oaks, Ventura, Ojai, Fillmore and Moorpark--pay all or part of the program's expenses for their schools.
"There's no question it's expensive, but we wanted to give the city a sense of the whole ball of wax," Barber said. "We believe that ultimately, the costs will be significantly less--probably under $100,000."
Barber, a veteran street cop, said one of the key aspects of the program is helping young people learn decision-making skills and taking responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.
"What people need to remember is that the dollars they are putting into a program like this now will save them a great deal more later in terms of both dollars and lives," Barber said.
Late one morning this week, Larson quizzed the sixth-graders in Siple's classroom. They responded as if they were game show contestants, trying to be first to blurt out the right answer and collect valued DARE stickers for their notebooks, or perhaps even win a prized backpack emblazoned with the red program logo.
Larson said the exercise is designed to be a fun method of getting students to remember what they should do if someone offers them drugs or alcohol or asks them to join a gang.
Leslie Lewis, 11, said she's learning.
"We have a lot of fun when Deputy Larson comes to our class, but I think we learn a lot too," Leslie said. "I think she's teaching us some important things. When you listen to her stories about the kids she's seen on drugs or in gangs, it really makes you think."
H FYI: The Camarillo City Council will conduct a study session on the DARE funding request at 5 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall, 601 Carmen Drive.