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THE FIGHT AGAINST CRIME: NOTES FROM THE FRONT : Dare to Take DARE Lessons Back to Wales

March 09, 1994|TIMOTHY WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mark Pontin's nightmare is to wake up one day to find that the youngsters in his hometown have adopted aspects of Los Angeles youth culture--not the kitschy lifestyle of Frankie and Annette on the beach and little deuce coupes, but the guns, gangs and early graves.

Pontin, you see, is a police investigator from Wales, a land of coal mines and rolling green hills, where even the most ill-behaved children do not come to school packing. And this mild-mannered man--whose job allows him to spend a great deal of time working with children--wants to keep it that way.

"We haven't got problems like you have, but they are developing," Pontin said of the Hampshire Constabulary, where he has been a cop for 21 of his 39 years. "We have the chance to close the stable door before the horse has bolted."

To accomplish that, Pontin came to Los Angeles recently to enroll in the Los Angeles Police Department's Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, better known as DARE. His goal is to learn as much as possible from the two-week course and pass it on to law enforcement and educational officials in Wales upon his return.

Pontin is hopeful that DARE will help make up for what he calls "the lack of a coherent drug education policy in Great Britain."

"We're looking at a similar scheme, a diversion that will get (young people) involved in something other than drugs and gangs and whatnot," he said. "We want to do it when they're still young, instead of waiting until they're older, when if they're going to do it, they've done it."

Pontin's participation is part of DARE's attempts to expand its geographic scope. Various elements of the 10-year-old program are now taught in each of the 50 states as well as six foreign countries.

Pontin's training consisted of learning 17 45-minute lesson plans designed to be taught to fourth- and fifth-graders. They emphasize boosting children's self-esteem, which DARE supporters say enables young people to resist the temptation of drugs, alcohol and gangs.

And though it is controversial--in part because it relies heavily on psychological teaching methods and because uniformed officers do the teaching--the program has won converts, including Pontin, because it focuses on education rather than enforcement.

"It's given us a lot of food for thought," Pontin said of himself and the 25 other officers who graduated from the course recently. "As far as enforcement is considered, crime goes on anyway. What you need is education, and from what I've seen, this is a very good program."

He added, however, that DARE'S lesson plans could be, well, condensed without losing a whole lot.

"There is some information in it, but it is mainly about developing personal skills," Pontin said tactfully.

After his first visit with American youngsters, at Langdon Elementary School in North Hills, Pontin came away surprised.

"I was very apprehensive about meeting them," he admitted. "What struck me was that they were just like English kids . . . innocent, keen to learn. It was wonderful."

In addition to talking about his native land, Pontin gave the students at Langdon and at other local schools a DARE primer. "We tell them about the consequences (of using drugs and alcohol), ways to resist, how to build self-esteem . . . pretty much the whole thing . . . which was probably too much."

The final element of Pontin's DARE training was to prepare his own lesson plan for the program's other officers, which can be a daunting prospect when cops behave like antsy 10-year-olds to test each other's mettle.

"They really test your classroom-management skills," Pontin said of the wiseacres, some of whom sailed paper airplanes at him as he tried to lecture.

So what did he think of his first visit to Los Angeles?

"With the aftershocks, the whole thing was mind-boggling," he said. "The freeways, the earthquake, drugs . . . it took a weekend just to get my head around it."

Presumably, Pontin meant the drugs other people were using.

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