DARE: Failing Our Kids

By Jodi Upton, The Detroit News, February 27, 2000

Popular anti-drug program not making a difference in Metro DetroitMoney can be better spent elsewhere, some experts say DARE, a billion-dollar national drug prevention program, has no impact on alcohol or drug use among Metro Detroit teen-agers, according to a Detroit News investigation.

DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, was introduced in Metro Detroit in 1988 and currently is taught to 5th or 6th graders in 70 of the 88 area school districts.

But for all of DARE’s expense, widespread use and powerful supporters, a four-month Detroit News study found teens in districts that offered DARE in elementary school were no less likely to try drugs and alcohol than teens from districts without DARE.

What’s worse, Metro Detroit drug use is higher than the national average. The News found that about 60 percent of Detroit-area seniors in the survey said they had tried drugs besides alcohol in their lifetime. That compares to the national average of about 55 percent, reported by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study.

Such figures prompt DARE’s critics to say it’s a costly sugar pill that may lull parents, police and educators into a dangerous, false confidence that their kids won’t do drugs. There is evidence the program may encourage drug use and keep more effective programs from getting into schools.

Krystal Rogan, a 16-year-old Monroe resident, remembers the program as being over her head in 5th grade.

“It didn’t have anything to do with the decisions I made,” said Rogan, at a recent rave (a party where many teen-agers use drugs) in a Detroit warehouse. “They tell you it’s all about peer pressure. That’s not how kids make their choices. You do it because you want to, not because anybody is telling you to.”

Nevertheless, DARE has a large cadre of vocal and well-organized supporters who believe it keeps kids off drugs, and has other benefits: fostering a good rapport between youngsters and police, and building students’ self esteem.

“It’s an excellent program,” said the Rev. Willet Herrington of Garden City. “I don’t think you stop because of statistics. You have to keep spreading that message.”

DARE advocates say the program shouldn’t be judged by studies. And the police officers who teach DARE are quick to cite files of heart-felt letters (even wedding invitations) from kids thanking DARE officers for changing their lives.

“I am absolutely convinced the program works. We may not save everyone, but I know we are saving some,” said Sgt. Paul Wood, a Livonia DARE officer.

And students love it.

“I learned about drugs, peer pressure and how to say no,” said Tracy Bianchi, 11, of St. Clair Shores. “I think drugs are so uncool.”

Perfect on the surface

On the surface, DARE seems to be the perfect program to reduce drug use: It shows kids the consequences of using drugs and teaches them different ways to say no when someone offers them drugs.

DARE is taught an hour a week for 16 weeks, usually to 5th graders, by a uniformed officer. The program teaches zero use, and that any alcohol, drug and tobacco use among teen-agers can lead to addiction.

But a growing body of evidence suggests that DARE’s core message, no matter how popular with 5th and 6th graders, doesn’t stick with kids when they start experimenting with drugs in 9th or 10th grade.

“The question is, can we overcome the rhetoric to see what the evidence is telling us?” said Joel Brown, executive director of the Center for Education Research and Development in Berkley, Calif., which has conducted long-term studies on DARE.

“In study after study, we find programs like these don’t work. DARE has been involved in a massive expansion regardless of whether the science bears the expansion worthy.”

In addition to Brown’s work and The News’ analysis, at least four other studies have found DARE made no difference in drug use three to six years later.

A few studies showed DARE increased drug and alcohol use in suburban schools. Researchers theorize that once teens see their friends experimenting with drugs without full-blown addiction, they throw out all the DARE lessons, creating a “boomerang” increase in drug use.

“Once that happens, they feel like they’ve been lied to, and reject the whole message,” said Donald Lynam, a researcher at the University of Kentucky who has studied DARE’s short- and long-term effects.

“Kids do drugs for a lot of reasons besides peer pressure: rebelliousness, curiosity, the need for a new experience.”

For Rogan, it was partly curiosity. First high at 15, she started using Ecstasy and LSD soon after. But an article about drugs made her recognize the warning signs in her own use. “I realized I was way too into it, and I read what it does to your body,” she said. “So I quit.”

None of the study results has slowed DARE’s spread. Praised by President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and the National School Board Association, 36 million kids worldwide learn DARE each year, according to DARE America figures.

Next month, DARE will start in Bolivia, the 53rd country to adopt DARE. It may even have an impact on foreign policy, since drug-trade countries such as Colombia and Bolivia may be able to use the DARE program as evidence they are fighting the drug war and avoid U.S. economic sanctions.

Naysayers are dismissed

DARE America’s executive director, Glenn Levant, dismisses studies questioning the program’s effectiveness. The program does not need to be evaluated, he said, because it is based on proven education techniques, such as positive role modeling.

But if people need proof, he points to several surveys that ask students, parents and teachers whether they liked the program. Most say they do.
“When they are happy with the program, then I know it’s doing good,” Levant said.

Levant admits DARE America has never followed up to find out how many kids used the DARE techniques, such as repeatedly saying “No” or walking away when offered drugs, in later years.

The News’ study compared self-reported drug and alcohol use of teens in 17 districts that offered DARE when they were in elementary school to teens in 16 districts that didn’t. In all, 30,000 students were included.

Among the other findings:

  • College-bound students had a slightly smaller increase in both drinking and drug use between 8th and 12th grades.
  • Neither race nor poverty proved to be a consistent indicator of increases in local drug use.

Brian Gralnik, a criminal justice major at George Washington University, believes DARE’s problem is its zero-tolerance message.

“Face the facts: Young people are still engaging in this behavior,” said Gralnik, 20. “We’re better off to preach reducing the consequences.”
Last fall, Gralnik started Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an East Coast campus movement that is lobbying Congress for programs that emphasize how to identify warning signs of an overdose or drugs cut with rat poison.

“We grew up in the drug war, we’re the DARE generation,” Gralnik said. “It doesn’t work. Kids can’t make an informed decision when they’re only taught to do it one way.”

But DARE America’s Levant says experimentation proves that DARE needs to be reinforced at every grade level to really be effective, an expansion that would cost an estimated $25 million a year in Metro Detroit alone.
“Anything is better than nothing, but common sense says more is better,” Levant said. “Memory fades.”

He also questions the motives of anyone who doubts the zero use message.
“There is no room for doubt,” Levant said. I’m curious why a researcher would think otherwise unless they are with a pro-legalization network.”

That attitude has squelched research on other programs, say Lynam and Brown, since many who suggest alternatives to DARE are accused of being pro-drug.
But some school districts, and even some police, have started to chafe at DARE’s strident message. Seattle, Milwaukee and Omaha, Neb. are among the districts that have dropped DARE.

“We dropped it because there was no formal proof, no statistics that showed we were getting any benefit out of it,” said Seattle Police department spokesman Clem Benton. “It was based on the dollars.”

Locally, districts such as Harper Woods and Clarkston have canceled DARE; others such as Rochester never started it.

“I like (DARE) but it’s very narrow, very rigid and expensive,” said Oakland County Sheriff Lt. Dale LaBair. “If you give kids more information they can make better decisions. But is it best? I don’t know. It’s not economical.”

$5 per student

DARE costs about $5 a student, which covers each 5th grader’s DARE workbook, T-shirt and ruler. But police time adds another $20-$50 per student, depending on the department and the number of classes. It costs about $4,000 to train a DARE officer.

Total cost in Metro Detroit: well over $2 million a year. That doesn’t include benefits, overtime, drive time or additional message reinforcers such as bumper stickers or hats.

Some police departments use community policing grants or drug forfeiture money to pay DARE officers. Others use local money, fund raisers or donations.

But no one really knows the program’s true cost.

The U.S. Department of Education says DARE is not on its list of programs whose effectiveness is proven. An expanded list is due out soon, but DARE will not likely be on it, said Judith Pasquarella, of Michigan’s Office of Drug Control Policy.

But parents, faced with an insidious drug problem and few alternatives, are reluctant to trash a program that has helped define drug prevention policy for more than a decade.

“I think it has lost some of its effect. It seems like the kids are getting more and more desensitized to the “Just Say No” message. It’s really up to the parents,” said Taylor parent Kathi Johnson.

Part 2: 02/28/2000

Proponents of alternative drug prevention programs hope to crack DARE’s emotional and financial grip on parents, police and educators.
Some promise their programs will dissuade teen-agers from trying drugs and alcohol. But it’s not always easy to get into schools with limited funding, because DARE is well-funded, well-organized, well-liked and firmly entrenched.

And some experts warn of a cozy relationship between prevention program creators, evaluators and those who stand to make money by selling programs. They say millions are spent every year on programs that may work no better than DARE, an acronym for Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education.

According to a Detroit News analysis of 33 Metro area school districts, there is no difference between teen drug and alcohol use in districts that offered DARE and in districts that did not. DARE is used in 70 of the 88 Metro districts.

Those who encourage development of other prevention programs say DARE is ineffective and dangerous, because parents, police and educators may mistakenly believe it will prevent their children from doing drugs.
Many of the newer programs  (even those deemed promising by the National Institutes of Health, such as Life Skills and Project STAR) closely resemble DARE, researchers say.

“When you really look at the curriculum, a lot of these programs are really very similar,” said Luanne Rohrbach, one of the original researchers on SMART  (the precursor to DARE) at the University of Southern California.
“The research community is actually fairly small, and we share ideas with each other.”

But if DARE doesn’t reduce drug use, why do other programs show promise?
The problem with DARE may not be the message, Rohrbach said, but rather the people who teach it: police officers. Having a strong authority figure talk about drugs may encourage kids to tell the officer what they think he wants to hear, rather than reach a decision themselves.

“The programs that are showing promise use small groups, the Socratic method: Clarify misinformation, but never tell kids what the right answer is,” she said.

“That takes skill and a special person. Even with the best training, an officer is probably not the best because of the authority they have.”
Rohrbach said DARE has been asked to experiment: Compare short- and long-term results when an officer and a teacher use the DARE program in similar classes. But DARE officials have refused, she said.

Others question the police-only policy.

“There’s a lot of money being made (in DARE) at a higher level for trademarked information,” said Steven Chung, Sumpter Township Police Commander.

“If you have the paraprofessionals and more people allowed to teach it, it would be more successful.”

Officers lend credibility

But having DARE taught by a police officer is “the magic that brings it to life,” said Glenn Levant, DARE America director.

“It would be difficult to find a teacher credible on the subject of substance abuse. The kids know more than the staff. You can’t just show them a video.”
DARE supporters say the program has other benefits, including improving kids’ self-esteem. Rohrbach says there’s no evidence of that. Instead, it may be the confidence kids get when they give the answer the instructor wants to hear.

“They may observe that, but that doesn’t mean it’s true,” Rohrbach said. “Self-esteem is really hard to measure, and there’s no study I know that shows that.”

While Rohrbach and others are optimistic that there is a new generation of programs that may work, others aren’t so sure, saying they may turn out to be just as ineffective.

“The larger issue is, why do we have so many large-scale programs, and the educational community has so little to do with it?” said Joel Brown, director of the Center for Education Research and Development in Berkeley, Calif.

“Our research was born of us being tired of all the calls from parents asking us, “What works?” We had no answers. But we’re not trying to sell anything.”
In a study he plans to publish later this year, Brown said the effectiveness of many popular new programs should be questioned.

For example, one program’s self evaluation changed methodology midstream and dropped 40 percent of the test sample, yet no one has challenged the researcher’s conclusion that the program is effective, he said.
It’s the one area Levant agrees: “(Several programs) are evaluated by the owner and the author of the program,” he said. “That smacks of conflict of interest to me.”

Zero use vs. responsibility

The other problem, some researchers say, is that most grant money is earmarked for zero use programs, such as DARE. Little is available for programs that emphasize responsible use, which advocates no use, but emphasizes consequences and warning signs.

It’s a familiar message when it comes to alcohol: Don’t drink and drive, use a designated driver, know the symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Or the safe sex messages: Abstain, but if you don’t, use a condom.

But that’s a politically tough message to sell, when you’re talking about teen-agers and drugs.

Nearly a decade ago, congressional researchers called for more so-called responsible use programs.

“There is no evidence that the no-use approach is more successful than alternative approaches, or even successful in its own right,” said a Government Accounting Office report.

“The long-range objective of reducing drug use will be better served… by considering a wider range of possible approaches.”

The GAO has not done a similar evaluation since, in part because the responsible use idea created an uproar in Congress.

Another common drug policy feature that makes educators and researchers bristle is zero tolerance, an offshoot of zero use. Zero tolerance means a student caught in virtually any alcohol or drug offense can be kicked out of school or prosecuted.

“Zero tolerance stands for zero intelligence,” said Bill MacFarland, Crestwood schools assistant superintendent in Dearborn Heights.

“Kids need to know there are consequences for misbehavior, but we have to operate from a standpoint of forgiveness and redemption. Easy answers should always make you question the person giving them.”

Giving kids things to do

In the meantime, some schools say they have had some success with distraction programs, making sure kids have things to do, especially high-energy, risk-taking activities, such as organized travel, skiing or skateboarding.

“You need to offer other options,” said Dearborn Heights DARE officer Ed Garcia. “Whether it’s a sports program or an intramural program, it needs to include more than just the police.”

Parents say they have had some luck taking an active role, almost a new twist on responsible use: Kids may experiment with drugs or alcohol, but an active parent network can help limit the damage.

As members of the Clarkston Community Task Force for Youth, for example, parents, kids, business leaders and others in the community talk monthly about ways to get kids active in the community, even have rave alternative parties, and limit the draw of drugs.

“We have a strong no use message,” task force coordinator Cindy Dixon said. “But a lot of parents want to tell kids to straighten up and quit doing drugs. Kids block that out.”

“Were aiming for relationships… and we’re in it for the long haul.
Other parents agreed.

“It’s really up to the parents to do their part,” said Detroit parent Jennette Williams, 23.

Copyright 2000, the Detroit News