Tight budgets and limited manpower have prompted the Maryland State Police to reduce their participation in DARE, a move that will make St. Mary's County one of three districts in the state that won't teach the program this academic year.

Statewide, six fewer troopers will teach DARE -- Drug Abuse Resistance Education -- this year than last, but a small change like this can have a big impact in counties such as St. Mary's, Wicomico and Caroline, where sheriff's offices do not participate in the program.

Law enforcement officials say the pullback reflects public safety priorities, not dissatisfaction with the program.

"With our manpower being what it is, we had to refocus our efforts on those areas where we thought we would have the greatest impact," said Capt. Michael Spaulding, who oversees five state police barracks, including the three in Southern Maryland. "Our first priority is public safety, both traffic safety and responding to calls for service."

Three years ago, the state police decided to cut back on their participation in DARE. The choice was between eliminating the program and having some officers split time between teaching and patrolling. The decision to opt for the part-time approach has put a larger burden on local law enforcement agencies.

"There are some areas where the state police have cut back and local law enforcement has stepped up. Some areas have not, like the sheriff's office in St. Mary's or Wicomico County," said Claude Nelson, DARE coordinator for the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions. He believes that DARE is a good investment in curtailing drug use. "I keep telling them, you either pay me now or you pay me later," he said.

Last year, the sheriff's office in St. Mary's County decided not to participate in DARE because of its own manpower issues, Sheriff David D. Zylak (D) said.

"We had 17 vacancies in law enforcement at the time," Zylak said. "I had to collapse not only the DARE program, but I also took an officer out of the Hot Spots program. We took somebody out of traffic safety and put them back on the street. We looked at all of our programs and safety operations." Hot Spots is a state-backed anti-crime program.

This move left just one state trooper to lead the program, taught an hour a day for 10 days, in all of the county's middle schools.

With the state police cutback this year, there is no one to teach it in St. Mary's for the first time since 1991, Nelson said.

"When you think of what those officers do for the students in the classroom, I think it's a mistake to lose them," he said. "But I'm not the one who has to worry about manpower issues, so I can't say that those agencies are making a mistake."

Andrew Roper, who supervises instruction for physical education, health and athletics in the county's schools, said the content of the DARE program will be rolled into the health curriculum.

However, DARE proponents in neighboring counties say that having police officers in the classroom might be more effective because students are drawn to uniformed officers.

"The way we present it is a more conducive atmosphere for kids to make smart decisions a year down the road or further," said Cpl. Michael Bomgardner of the Calvert County Sheriff's Office, president of the Maryland State DARE Officers Association, which has about 120 certified instructors.

There are two exceptions to the state police pullout. Carroll County, which reimburses the state for the cost of three "resident troopers," has decided that these troopers will continue teaching DARE, Nelson said.

In Charles County, where the DARE program is staffed by the sheriff's office, a state police sergeant and trooper are involved in the county's juvenile intervention unit, which has many responsibilities in the schools in addition to teaching.

These troopers will continue to participate in the unit, said Lt. Randy Stephens, the La Plata barrack commander. But this year, like last, they will teach DARE classes only when a deputy needs someone to fill in.

In Calvert County, the sheriff is supplying three DARE instructors from his office so the program will continue despite losing a trooper, Bomgardner said.

As a longtime DARE instructor, Bomgardner is a strong proponent of the program. He said parents sometimes stop him to thank him for getting them off drugs.

" 'My kid told me about what you were teaching, and I turned my life around,' " Bomgardner said parents have told him. "I don't know how you put a price tag on that."