The nation's most popular anti-drug education program is making a change. After 18 years in which it has spread to about 75% of the nation's schools, DARE is moving in a different direction. It will attempt to reach students in grades seven and nine through group discussions about drug-abuse issues, moving away from the lecture format currently used in the fifth and sixth grades.
According to DARE America, the new curriculum will provide seventh-graders with "the skills to make positive, quality-of-life decisions" and focus on "the conditions leading up to violent behavior, how to identify potentially violent situations, and some basic ways to avoid or defuse such situations." DARE says "the skills learned in the program will be reinforced in other curricular areas and in subsequent years with a second program in the ninth grade."
The new program will be tested in six cities and evaluated by the University of Akron over a five-year period.
DARE is making the change for two reasons. First, according to a press release on its web site (www.dare.com), it is hoping to branch out, taking advantage of a $13.7 million grant to the University of Akron from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton.
The second and more telling reason is that it had no choice. Mounting evidence of the program's ineffectiveness had it on the defensive and the federal government told schools they no longer would be able to use cash distributed by the Department of Education's safe and drug-free schools office on DARE. The department, according to the New York Times, "did not consider it scientifically proven."
DARE was created in 1983 by then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and as grown over the last 18 years into a program that serves more than half of all US school districts. DARE puts uniformed police officers into fifth-grade classrooms for an hour a week for 17 weeks to teach students how to resist drugs. Students are required to sign a pledge that they will "keep their body free from drugs."
DARE does remain popular. But popularity does not necessarily mean the program is worthwhile. It's not that DARE doesn't work. It's that, after 18 years, we still aren't sure -- even though we've spent millions on the program across the country since it was first instituted.
Dozens of evaluations have been done, many cited by DARE America as proving the program's effectiveness and many others questioning it, but the fact remains that no scientific study has discovered a statistically significant difference in drug-use rates between students who had taken DARE and those who had not. According to the Times, "one six-year study by the University of Illinois found that the program's effects were off by senior year of high school; in fact, it detected some increased drug use by suburban high school students who had taken the program. And a 10-year study by the University of Kentucky found the DARE program had no effect on students by the time they were 20 years old."
And that's the key piece of the puzzle. Without that scientific support, all we have is conjecture. And conjecture is just not enough to warrant the money and classroom time spent on the program.
DARE does offer some benefit. By having younger students interact with officers, it takes away some of the adversarial relationship that can grow as students grow into teen-agers. However, schools do not need the DARE program to accomplish that goal. Officers can be brought into schools to teach students about safety, about riding bicycles, obeying traffic rules and resisting strangers. And they can offer some guidance on the dangers of drugs.
But spending the kind of money and class time on a program that has no proven benefit is problematic.
That's the reason Mayor Ross C. Anderson of Salt Lake City, Utah, decided recently to pull money from the program. He told the Times last year the program was "a complete fraud on the American people, and has actually done a lot of harm by preventing the implementation of more effective programs."
He said he based his decision on several studies showing that kids exposed to DARE were no less likely to use drugs later in life than children who did not take DARE. He told the Times "all the peer-reviewed research shows that DARE is a complete waste of money and, even worse, fritters away the opportunity to implement a good drug-prevention program in schools."
Salt Lake City is not the first, nor is it the largest city, to cut off DARE funding. Oakland, Calif., and Fayetteville, N.C., both pulled the plug on the program after determining that it was not doing what it advertised. And other towns have recommended changes in the DARE curriculum.
The curriculum changes and the study are meant to address these concerns, the Times said, addressing criticism that the program was simplistic and that some research "suggested that the DARE program occasionally encourages drug use, by making it seem more prevalent than it is."
"Our feeling was, after looking at the prevention movement, we were not having enough of an impact," Herbert D. Kleber, the head of DARE's scientific advisory panel who is also medical director of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, told the Times. "There was a marked rise in drug use. Our job was to answer the question, how can we make it better?"
The changes will focus on changing "social norms" among students, making it less acceptable to use drugs. It also will change how police officers are used, the Times said, "having them serve more as coaches than as lecturers. The officers are to encourage students to challenge the social norms in discussion groups; the intended result is that the students will conclude on their own that they do not need to use drugs to fit in." There also will be more role-playing and discussions.
While these are positive changes in the program, they still rely to some degree on an anti-drug model that focuses on law enforcement rather than public health. Police officers will remain the primary teachers under the new curriculum, even though the proposals are designed to soften their impact.
What we need is a change in direction, a move away from prohibition and police work toward health-related concerns. That means making it easier for addicts to gain help, decriminalizing some drugs and legalizing others. It means treating the people who use drugs as if they were sick, and not as if they were Public Enemy No. 1.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com