Study Adds to Doubts on DARE Program

By Ellen Barry, Globe Correspondent, 08/02/99

Twelve years ago, when DARE’s new approach to drug education was just beginning to capture the imagination of Americans, the city of Lexington, Ky., ran out of funding after installing DARE officers in 23 schools, leaving eight schools to manage on their own.

But 10 years later, the children who didn’t have the Drug Abuse Resistance Education curriculum were just as likely to abuse drugs as the kids who went through DARE, according to a study to be released today by psychologists at the University of Kentucky.

The study is the latest voice in a chorus of criticism from social scientists who say DARE – the country’s most widely used drug education program – has never demonstrated its effectiveness.

But in Massachusetts, at least, the rising stack of academic criticism has done little to diminish DARE’s popularity among parents or the police officers who administrate it. Although five Massachusetts cities or towns have abandoned DARE in recent years, and Burlington, Vt., followed suit in May, 93 percent of Massachusetts municipalities remain firmly within ”the DARE fold,” according to Sheila Foley, the program’s state coordinator.

From the researchers’ point of view, that continued enthusiasm shows Americans’ stubborn resistance to apply science to drug policy.

”If you talk to people, they say, `My kid doesn’t use drugs, and he’s gone through DARE.’ They’re not being good scientists,” said Donald Lynam, lead author of the study, published in the August issue of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

”What I keep thinking of is if DARE were a drug, I wonder if it could have FDA approval based on its efficacy? I don’t think it could,” he said.

The Kentucky results fall in line with an earlier study showing that DARE’s effects were measurable but short-lived. Last year, a six-year follow-up by University of Illinois criminologist Dennis Rosenbaum showed DARE had a substantial failure rate, especially in the suburbs. Studies from the University of Colorado and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Institute have drawn the same conclusion.

One recent study, from Ohio State University, gave DARE credit for producing students 50 percent less likely to become high-risk drug abusers.

But the decisions about DARE are made on the local level. To the program’s defenders, such as Wakefield DARE officer Bob Ramocki, the studies are more than canceled out by classroom experience. And all the studies have a built-in problem, he said: How do you measure prevention?

About 12 years ago, the first Massachusetts towns began adopting DARE’s idea of shifting the burden for drug education from health teachers to uniformed police officers. Using funds from the state tobacco tax, most towns involved in the program have a full-time DARE officer – Ramocki even has an office in the middle school. One positive byproduct, say local DARE officers, is that schoolchildren are on a comfortable footing with the police.

”It used to be that when a police cruiser pulled up in front of a high school, people would think there was trouble,” said Sergeant Vin Macchia, a DARE officer in Lynnfield. ”Now, because of DARE, they think it’s ordinary.”

And Ramocki traced the criticism of DARE in part to people who ”don’t believe that police officers should be in the school teaching their kids.”

That’s not the point, said Joel H. Brown, who heads the Center for Educational Research and Development at University of California at Berkeley, and whose 1995 study for the California State Department of Education took the first serious shot at DARE-type programs. Brown’s criticism is not confined to DARE, but applies broadly to the zero-tolerance approach. Educators typically present drugs – including alcohol and cigarettes – as a monolith, overlooking differences that teenagers realize themselves through direct experience, leading to a traumatic moment of ”cognitive dissonance,” he said.

If adults were more nuanced in their presentation, students would find it easier to rely on their advice, he said. A better presentation of marijuana, for instance, would mention both good and bad effects while not condoning its use, he said. ”There’s a big distance between `just say no’ and `just say yes.”’

And officials in some regions are coming to the same conclusion. When Burlington Police Chief Elana Ellis announced that she would discontinue the program in May, the Vermont city joined Omaha, Houston, and Seattle in the quest for a new approach. In Massachusetts, Lexington, Bedford, Lawrence, Lunenburg, and Harvard have also dropped the program – a trend that concerns Foley.

”It does worry me, because I’m not sure what the alternative programs are,” said Foley.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 08/02/99.

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.