Back in the Dark Ages when I was in elementary school, we used to have "drug awareness" day. This was 1970, so the educational system's approach to "drug awareness" was just that: They made us "aware" of drugs.

They would have some ex-doper (still hippie) come in and tell us about drugs. He would have props, usually disguised legal pharmaceuticals, SweeTarts, an old hypodermic syringe, and a faux joint or two, and he would explain to us what these things were, what they did, and why they were dangerous.

Now that ex-doper (still hippie) meant well. So did the educational system. Their goal was to keep the kids of the 1970s clean and sober. But they were trying to drain a raging river with a bailing bucket.

Hipster culture told us that drugs and alcohol were "cool." Rock stars sang about the stuff, movie and TV comedians joked about the stuff, and-as George Carlin so eloquently stated-TV advertising preached to us that the solution to every ill was "Two in the mouth," as in "take two aspirin and call me in the morning."

So "drug awareness" day was a colossal failure. My high school class (1977) and the classes that immediately followed it were likely the most drug-addled population cohort in American history. ("That '70s Show" was only a slight exaggeration.)

Roughly a decade after my cohort was exposed to drug awareness, Chief Daryl Gates of the Los Angeles Police Department helped create Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). The concept was simple: Instead of sending ex-dopers into the schools for one day, they would send specially educated cops into the schools for numerous sessions starting in kindergarten and ending in 10th grade. The goal was not just to keep kids off drugs but also to keep them out of gangs.

D.A.R.E. is a controversial program. Some academics see it as so ineffective that they have released studies showing D.A.R.E. students are just as likely, if not more likely, than non-D.A.R.E. students to abuse drugs and alcohol. Some in law enforcement see D.A.R.E. as a touchy-feely waste of time and personnel. D.A.R.E. also has its defenders.

But I have to admit that until recently I wasn't one of them. I saw D.A.R.E. through the filter of those "drug awareness" days back in elementary school. But that was before I had a chance to sit down and talk to a group of D.A.R.E. officers and see their attachment to the students they call their "kids." (See "5.11 Hosts D.A.R.E. Officers and Kids at Fishing Lodge.")

Does D.A.R.E. really keep kids off drugs and out of gangs? The jury is still out.

But I can say for certain one thing that it does do. It puts cops in the school and in the lives of school children, not in an adversarial way but as mentors and teachers. For some of the kids in the D.A.R.E. program, the D.A.R.E. officer is the only adult they can really talk to. For a kid raised by a single mother, he can be a father figure. For a kid whose mother is too busy at work, she can be a nurturing force for good.

The D.A.R.E. officers I met at 5.11 Tactical's recent D.A.R.E. event in Montana all shared one common trait: They were all really dedicated and all really attached to their kids.

I have no doubt that many of these officers assigned full-time to D.A.R.E. were and still could be great street cops. And they may be called on to use those skills someday again.

But they have chosen to protect and serve school children. Which doesn't mean that they are no longer cops. D.A.R.E. officers have stopped school shooters, ended sexual abuse of minors, and saved the lives of kids contemplating suicide.

D.A.R.E. officers should be celebrated and honored for their lofty calling, regardless of whether the program prevents drug abuse or mitigates violence.

There's one great truth about D.A.R.E.: It can't help every kid, but it helps some kids. And that's something that "drug awareness" day never did and never could do.