Shakopee public school officials are daring to break away from the pack to pilot their own drug prevention and community policing initiative.

Shakopee administrators swapped out D.A.R.E., the long-running school standard for substance abuse education, in favor of their own program, COPS, Community Outreach by Police for Students.

"We just wanted to really build a program relevant to the needs of our community," said Nika Summer district teaching and learning supervisor.

The district made the move to drop D.A.R.E. in the 2014-15 school year following talks about redesigning middle school courses to fit with the new high school's academy-based model in which students take classes aligned with their interests.

At the time, a large portion of the sixth-grade health class was centered on D.A.R.E. Summer said the district wanted to condense the program and develop lessons that moved beyond drugs and alcohol.

The program developed in collaboration with administrators, teachers and police will integrate "courage is cool" as its underlying message throughout the COPS curriculum.

Starting this January, fifth-grade students will be encouraged to have the courage to make decisions to influence others positively, while sixth-graders will learn about resisting peer pressure and knowing the dangers of social media. Officers also will work with seventh-graders on the courage to say "No" and how to avoid risk. Unlike D.A.R.E., where school resource officers focused on fifth-grade students, Shakopee officers will have the chance to interact with fifth- through seventh-grade students.

"We are interacting with students at different age levels and helping them identify good behaviors vs. bad," Shakopee Sgt. Angela Trutnau said.

Moving beyond D.A.R.E.

Shakopee is not the first metro school district to scrap its D.A.R.E. program. Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan dropped the program in 2010, then brought in Steps to Respect, a bullying prevention program.

"The biggest change is obviously having that relationship with a D.A.R.E. officer within our building and having fifth-grade students work closely with a police officer," Rosemount Elementary School Principal Tom Idstrom said.

Over the years, schools have abandoned the program to save money and to launch their own programs.

D.A.R.E. has revised its curriculum nine times to meet the changing needs of schools. It even has a new name, "Keeping It Real." The program now includes bullying, Internet safety, sex trafficking and community policing.

The new program is designed to be customized, said Kathi Ackerman, executive director of Minnesota D.A.R.E.

"The one thing D.A.R.E has never been criticized on is the fact that there is a relationship between a cop and a kid," Ackerman said.

"We are finding a lot of the departments that dropped D.A.R.E … have no relationship between their communities and police."

Ackerman said some school officials now want D.A.R.E. back at their schools, including Duluth. Ackerman is in early talks with Duluth on how to fit the program into its middle school curriculum.

"With Duluth, we are working on training their school resource officers to be D.A.R.E. officers," Ackerman said. "Then they are not just arresting officers. They are forming relationships with the kids."

Districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul are tweaking their student-school officer relationships. Under new measures in St. Paul, officers are hosting monthly meetings with students on school and community issues.

Shakopee's COPS program also is emphasizing the relationship between students and school resource officers.

Summer said officers previously involved in D.A.R.E. had to go through intensive training, time that school resource officers can spend with students.

"They are part of the community," Summer said. "It is not just an officer that is there when someone is doing something bad."

Beatrice Dupuy • 612-673-1707