Truth or DARE: 20 Years of Great Press, But Statistical Failure

By Paul Rosenberg, Random Lengths News, May 1, 2003

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE.) program—the brainchild of former Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates—turned 20 this year. DARE’s 20th anniversary was celebrated on April 10 at White Point Elementary School in San Pedro, in an event that merged seamlessly into a cheerleading event for the invasion of Iraq. This PR blend was typical of how DARE has managed to market itself over the years, associating itself with popular impulses and keeping one step ahead of serious public scrutiny, despite an ever-mounting body of evidence.

Measured in terms of popularity, DARE is a smashing success, the “most widely used school-based substance abuse prevention program in the United States,” according to Congress’s investigative arm, the General Accounting Office (GAO). “DARE operates in about 80 percent of all school districts across the United States and in numerous foreign countries,” the GAO said in a report, released on January 15.

But in terms of actual results, DARE is a big, fat failure. The same GAO report (“Youth Illicit Drug Use Prevention”) found that “DARE had no statistically significant long-term effect on preventing illicit drug use,” according to all six evaluations it studied. Ordinary anti-drug education in a normal health education curriculum proved just as effective, without all the extra hoopla, expense and diversion of scarce police resources. In fact, one study found that DARE actually increased the likelihood of drug use amongst suburban school kids.

The authors of another study, from the University of Kentucky, attempted to understand why DARE remains popular, despite lack of results, and came up with two possible answers. First, like other intervention programs “these ‘feel-good’ programs are ones that everyone can support, and critical examination of their effectiveness may not be perceived as necessary.” Second, programs like DARE appear to work—most kids exposed to DARE don’t use drugs. The catch is, most kids don’t do drugs anyway, despite high levels of brief experimentation.

The DARE program is typically introduced in fifth or sixth grade, in a series of 17 lessons taught by uniformed police officers trained in the program. DARE also has middle school and high school programs to reinforce the grade-school program, but these are much less widely used, and were only implemented after 1994. The GAO report notes that, “The majority of studies evaluating DARE focus on the elementary school curriculum.”

That’s just the problem, according to DARE’s defenders. “If you take German for 17 weeks, you’re not going to speak German,” DARE’s New York spokesperson, Ronald J. Brogan, told the Village Voice in 1999. The answer, defenders say, is more DARE programs. But 17 weeks of German leaves a measurable effect, specific skills and knowledge that form a foundation for further instruction, which is why that instruction is warranted. The same cannot be said about DARE.

In fact, DARE’s critics argue it can be counter productive. DARE takes a zero-tolerance approach, and lumps all drugs together—including alcohol and tobacco. The reincarnated “Reefer Madness” approach—saying that any amount of any drug will lead you to ruin—may fly with fifth graders, but Marsha Rosenbaum, of the Lindesmith Center, warned the Voice, “Once kids get to an age where they’re experimenting… they know that it is not true, so they throw away the entire prevention message. It isn’t really education. It’s indoctrination.”

Berkeley-based researcher Dr. Joel Brown is even more emphatic. “The equation of all substances as just being ‘bad,’ with no possible benefits, ends up with young people rejecting the messengers as well as the message,” Brown told the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1998. Thus, ill-conceived drug education can further the alienation of youth, making the problem more difficult to address.

Speaking to Random Lengths five years later, he was even more emphatic. “We were among the first in the country showing that DARE is harmful to kids,” Brown recalled. The problem isn’t just DARE, he explained, but a whole array of similar zero-tolerance programs. “Most people don’t understand that absent the police uniform, these programs are virtually identical, by funding mandate of the federal government.”

Brown is not just a critic, however. He is one of a growing number of researchers involved in developing better approaches, based on solid research, rather than good feelings.

His organization, the Center for Educational Research and Development (CERD), draws heavily on research from developmental, physiological and educational psychology, as well as the experience of educators and helping professionals. It’s long been realized that adolescence entails problems, which most adolescents grow out of. CERD draws on these experts to craft an approach that builds on this natural resilience, called, simply enough, “resilience education.” As Brown puts it, “we are engaged in the critical difference between preventing problems, versus supporting development.”

After 20 years of empty promises from DARE, it just might be time for a little truth.