From guns to blackboards: Police officers teach kids vs drug abuse

Mara Cepeda

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From guns to blackboards: Police officers teach kids vs drug abuse
In several schools across the country, police officers trade guns for chalks as they help mold young minds to stay away from illegal drugs

Part 2 of 2

READ: Part 1: What are schools telling kids about illegal substance abuse?

MANILA, Philippines – Police are seen entering Plaridel Elementary School. They have one goal: Fight drug abuse. But gone are the guns and the car sirens of the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) infamous anti-drug operations. Instead, the officers came armed with chalk, workbooks, and a laptop. 

It’s time for class. 

Plaridel Elementary School is one of 74 public schools in Manila where police and army officers trained by the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Philippines teach Grades 5 and 6 students about the bad effects of illegal drugs and how to avoid them.  

The DARE program, which operates in several schools nationwide, is endorsed by Education Secretary Leonor Briones, who believes educating students against illegal substance abuse should go beyond the textbook

The former teacher said students tend to listen to the police because they are directly exposed to the drug menace in the country.  

“Because the police in the life of a child is another person of authority. The teacher might be there, but old textbooks tell you what a policeman does like directing traffic, helping children cross the street, and keeping them safe. So their credibility is high in so far as the training of the child is concerned,” said Briones. 

So naniniwala talaga sila kasi person in authority, ‘di ba? [Children are usually told], ‘Susumbong kita sa pulis!’ or ‘Huhulin ka ng pulis!’ or ‘May pulis sa ilalaim ng tulay,’ and all that sort of thing, which children absorb,” she added.

(So they believe him because he is a person in authority, right? Children are usually told, ‘We’ll report you the police!’ or ‘The police will arrest you!’ or ‘There’s a police under the bridge,’ and all that sort of thing, which children absorb.) 

The program is the brainchild of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District in the United States, aimed to prevent drug abuse among the American youth.  

Joseph Estrada decided to adopt the program in the Philippines in 1993 when he was still vice president. The DARE program continued operating until Estrada’s ouster from the presidency in 2001.

When Estrada became Manila mayor, the program was revived in September 2015 and has since expanded, with around 500 members of the PNP and the Philippine Army becoming teachers to some 1.5 million Filipino gradeschoolers. 

Currently, 36 DARE officers are teaching in Metro Manila schools, 61 officers in Calabarzon, and 63 officers in Soccsksargen.

Police becomes teacher 

The DARE program usually borrows 10 hours from the music, art, physical education, and health classes of the school it has partnered with.

Senior Police Officer 3 Dennis Ebuenga, DARE’s officer-in-charge for Manila schools, told Rappler that each session day is focused on one topic:

  • Day 1: Introduction to DARE Philippines and its initiatives
  • Day 2: Health effects of using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs
  • Day 3: Risk and consequences of using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs
  • Day 4: What is peer pressure and how to avoid it?
  • Day 5: Stress
  • Day 6: Basic communication skills to effectively say no to drugs
  • Day 7: Non-verbal communication to effectively say no to drugs
  • Day 8: Bullying
  • Day 9: Review of the past 8 lessons
  • Day 10: Graduation

Ebuenga said the main purpose of DARE officers is to keep kids away from vices and to help the government in keeping the nation free from illegal drugs.  

Balang araw kasi, sila ‘yong papalit sa atin. Sila ‘yong magko-commute diyan sa labas. Sila ‘yong makakakita ng droga, na ‘pag nakita nila, alam nila na ‘Uy, masama pala ‘to. Hindi ko gagawin to,’” he said.

(Someday, the children will be the ones who will replace us. They will be the ones commuting. They will see drugs, and when they do, they would already say, ‘Hey, this is bad. I will not take this.’) 

Ebuenga’s colleague, Police Officer 1 Florence Gumilab, allowed Rappler to sit in as she taught 5th graders from Plaridel Elementary School about peer pressure and the different strategies to say no when offered to take drugs by friends. 

The students were at rapt attention as soon as Gumilab started the class. She used a Powerpoint presentation provided by DARE Philippines to define and give examples of peer pressure.

Gumilab told the kids to find another route home if they see their neighbors drinking alcohol on the street. She told them to surround themselves with friends who influence them well. Say “No, thanks” when offered drugs. Give a reason why. Change the subject when a friend brings up wanting to try drugs.  

ROLE PLAYING. Gumlilab gives instructions to the students chosen to conduct a group skit in front of the class.

The class then became a little bit noisy when Gumilab asked for volunteers to act in front. The police-teacher decided to make students do some role-playing so she can effectively show them the different ways to resist when being offered to take drugs.

Students raised hands to get roles, which Gumilab whispered to the ears of those called to act. Each presentation was followed by applause and a few laughter from the students. 

Finally, the bell rang, and Gumilab picked up her things, said goodbye to the students, and left the classroom.

Starting them young

The same topic is covered by Grades 5, 8, and 9 students in their health class curriculum under the Kindergarten to 12 program. But DARE is more focused on equipping students with the means to say no to illegal substances. 

Joining the DARE program is completely voluntary for police officers, who will automatically become part of the PNP’s police community relations unit once they join the program. A DARE officer is not allowed to join anti-drug operations.  

Ebuenga said he joined DARE Philippines because he wanted to lessen the number of children turning into adults who are addicted to drugs and often have the tendency to commit crimes.  

Dahil sabi nga, ‘yong bata, pagkatumanda ‘yan at hindi natin naturuan ng magandang edukasyon ‘yan tungkol sa illegal drugs, sila uli ang papalit-ulit sa mga nakulong. Sila uli ‘yong mga batang magnanakaw, gagawa ng krimen. Kaya sabi ko sa sarili ko, magde-DARE officer na rin ako. Pupunta ako ng school at magtuturo ako,” said Ebuenga. 

(When children grow older and they weren’t educated properly on illegal drugs, they will be the ones who will end up in jail. They will steal, commit crimes. That’s why I wanted to be a DARE officer. I want to go to school and teach them.)

A BOX FOR PROBLEMS. Ebuenga presents the DARE box to his students

As for Gumilab, being a DARE officer also allowed her to become closer to the students. Some of her pupils even shared personal problems to her through the class DARE box. 

The DARE box is a shoebox wrapped in colorful paper, in which students can write down their problems or report an issue by writing on a piece of paper anonymously. The DARE officer then reads the contents of the box after class. 

One of Gumilab’s students even admitted that she was being molested by her stepfather. Gumilab then referred the child to her community precinct’s women desk, which then assisted the student. 

“Nagsusumbong talaga sila. Especially ‘pag sinabi mong DARE box, umiiyak na ‘yan. Puwede niyong sabihin kung ano man ‘yong problema niyo dito aside sa lecture natin. So merong umiiyak na ‘yan na lumalapit sa’yo,” 

(They really make reports there. When you mention the DARE box, they will begin crying. I tell them they can say whatever problems they have after our lecture. So there will always be someone who will cry and approach you to tell you about his or her problem.) 

Application process

How does one become a DARE officer? 

It all begins with DARE Philippines, which coordinates with regional offices of the Department of Education (DepEd) when it wants to reach more areas for the program.

DepEd then organizes an assembly with school principals, whom DARE Philippines need to convince why the program should be established in their schools as well. 

Once the principals agree, a notice is sent to the concerned PNP regional chief, who will then issue a memorandum to his or her district precincts asking police officers to volunteer for the DARE program. 

These police officers are then screened by DARE Philippines. The organization’s executive vice president Donna Gasgonia said it is important the police applicant must sincerely believe children need to be kept away from drugs.

They must have a “pleasing personality,” and plus points are given if the applicant has a degree on education or any health-related courses. 

A potential DARE officer also must not be taking drugs, alcohol, or tobacco either. 

Kasi ‘pag nagturo ka sa school, sa classroom, sasabihin mo na ‘wag kang manigarilyo, ‘wag kang uminom ng alak, ‘wag kang mag-droga, at nakita ka ng bata na tinuturuan mo na ikaw ay naninigarilyo at ikaw ay bumili ng alak, sasabihan ‘yong DARE officer namin na napakasinungaling,” said Ebuanga.

(Because when you’re teaching in the classroom that students shouldn’t drink alcohol and take drugs, then the children will see you smoking or buying alcohol, then they’ll say the DARE officer is a liar.)

The police officers who answer the call and get accepted into the DARE program do not get any extra pay, except for transportation allowance to and from the school. Ebuenga said they are thankful because teachers often give them water and snacks.

No directives on drug war

Thankfully, instruction materials are not a problem for DARE officers. The organization provides each officer with a laptop and a television, which they use to teach their students.

The lesson plan is also copyrighted by DARE America, so the Filipino DARE officers just need to follow what has been provided to them.

Because of this, however, DARE officers are constrained to only discuss what was specified under the program’s curriculum. There is no directive whatsoever whether or not they should discuss Duterte’s drug war – and how they should answer when a student confronts them about it in class.  

Both Ebuenga and Gumilab even refused to comment on the drug war themselves, saying the police force has an official spokesperson who can speak for them. (READ: In war on drugs, lives of police at risk too)

CURIOUS MINDS. Some children have asked their DARE officers about the ongoing drug war

Gumilab, however, obliged when asked how she responds whenever a pupil of hers asks her about the anti-drug operations of the PNP, including alleged extrajudicial killings.

The female cop said she focuses on the facts first and reviews the events of the news her student has relayed to her. She then explains to the student that the PNP investigates allegations being hurled at them. 

So kung pulis man ‘yan, may mga ginagawa din kaming mga punishment for the police officers. Kumbaga natatanggal sila sa position or whatever and then further investigation. Masasagot ‘yan ng further investigation sa amin,” said Gumilab. 

(So if a police officer was responsible, I tell them that we impose punishment on erring police officers. That they get removed from their posts and then there will be further investigation. Their answers will be answered by further investigation.)

It’s not always the case, though. Last September, the Caloocan City police station of the officers embroiled in the killing of teenagers Kian delos Santos and Carl Arnaiz was even named best police station in Metro Manila.

It was only after this recognition did the National Capital Region Police Office announced it will replace the entire Caloocan City police force.

Good cops vs bad cops

The DARE program has become even more crucial under President Rodrigo Duterte, who is waging a bloody war against drugs where thousands of suspected users and pushers have perished.

It’s an opportunity for the police force – which has been criticized locally and internationally over alleged human rights abuses  – to redeem itself. Ebuenga even called the DARE program as the “bright side” of the PNP.

Napakaimportante po ma’am sapagkat  dapat isipin po natin [na] ang DARE program, ito po ‘yong bright side ng PNP. Hindi lang kumbaga lahat naman na programa ng PNP ay napakaganda, lalo na yung kampanya laban sa droga. Yun nga lang, yung sa amin sa DARE program, ay talagang nililinang namin ‘yong kaisipan ng kabataan, na refrain from illegal drugs, from tobacco and alcohol,” he said. 

(This is important, ma’am, because we have to look at the DARE program as the bright side of the PNP. The PNP’s programs are good, especially the campaign against drugs. But for us at the DARE program, we’re really molding the minds of the youth to refrain from illegal drugs, tobacco, and alcohol.)

Through the DARE program, Gumilab also hopes that Filipinos will realize there are still good cops left in the PNP. 

Kumbaga, kami na lang ‘yong nagiging role model for them, na hindi lahat ng police officers na nakikitan niyo ay masasama. May mababait din,” she said.

(This is our role, to show them that not all police officers are bad. There are good ones among us.) – 

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.