With a simple question, a police officer transformed a group of squirming 10- and 11-year- olds sitting through their fifth-grade promotion ceremony in Odenton into miniature military recruits.
"What time is it?" Officer Dianne Venit shouted to the pupils. As disbelieving parents watched the DARE segment of the Waugh Chapel Elementary School graduation, their children chanted in unison:
"DARE time." Clap, clap.
"Drug free." Clap, clap.
So ended Anne Arundel County's DARE anti-drug program, the largest in the state, which is being eliminated as of tomorrow. It reached more than 24,000 children this school year - triple the number of any other Maryland county - but fell victim to budget cutbacks and a nationwide reassessment of DARE's effectiveness.
In the fall in the Baltimore-Washington area, only Baltimore County, Washington and small portions of Carroll and Harford counties will teach DARE, short for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties cut the program recently, and Baltimore City hasn't used it for years.
In Arundel, all 13 officers in the unit have been reassigned, which is expected to save the Police Department $1.1 million a year.
"It would make me sad if we were stopping DARE knowing that it was really making a difference to the kids in it," said Lt. Jason D. Little, who oversees the unit and was one of the first Anne Arundel County officers trained in the program. "But it's not."
Developed in 1983 by Los Angeles police officers, DARE is used in about 80 percent of the nation's schools. The program, typically paid for by local police departments, places a uniformed officer in the classroom to teach children about the dangers of drugs and violence.
Local police officials, however, noted a number of recent studies that seem to indicate the program is failing.
A 2003 U.S. General Accounting Office report calls DARE's long-term influence "statistically insignificant." And the U.S. Surgeon General's Office and the National Academy of Sciences have published studies in the past five years saying children do not retain material taught in the program.
DARE America officials defend the program, saying they are actively retooling the curriculum to address criticism.
One common complaint about DARE is that it takes up too much class time, so in September, the fifth-grade curriculum will contract from 17 to 10 weeks. The middle school/junior high program also will change significantly this fall, focusing less on self-esteem and leadership and more on the legal consequences of drug use.
James McGivney, DARE director of the mid-Atlantic region, said the two-decades-old program is working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to make itself the "gold standard" in drug education.
"DARE can't be matched; it can't be replicated," he said. "But we're looking to improve it using the latest scientific research."
Meanwhile, police departments around the country - from Portsmouth, Va., to Scottsdale, Ariz. - seem to be shedding the program. McGivney said DARE is "holding its own," but acknowledged it has become a victim of the economy.
Anne Arundel County Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan has described the program as "nice to have, unless you're in a need-to-have situation."
Local fifth- and seventh-graders - and their parents - see it differently. One Anne Arundel fifth-grader said she was "stunned" to learn the program was ending.
"Please help us save this wonderful program called DARE," Chelsea Croft read from her essay during the graduation ceremony in Odenton. "Make the right decision."
That day, she and about 70 classmates solemnly raised their right hands and together recited: "I pledge to keep my body healthy and drug free." They sang a song, "I Will Dare," as two DARE officers danced in their seats and mouthed the words to the catchy tune.
After the ceremony several parents approached Officer Venit to thank her for her work with DARE - and to give their condolences on the program's end.
"Kids now are a lot less likely than they were a few years ago to do drugs," said Robin Neumann, whose daughter Emily had just graduated from the program. "I believe it's because of DARE."
The elementary school program is the cornerstone of DARE, but many middle-schoolers are exposed to a second round. In seventh-grade, the officers notice that warm hugs from 10-year-olds are replaced with scowls from budding teen-agers.
Still, Officer Michelle Mangold, who has taught DARE for six years, is wistful about the program's end.
"DARE is what I do," she said during a break from teaching a seventh-grade session at George Fox Middle School in Pasadena, shortly before school ended for the year. "Now I'm just waiting for the end. Something inside me knew this would be the last year."