The DARE Debate

Austin Police Kick Drug Prevention Program

photograph by Doug Potter

DARE, the world's most popular drug prevention program, just lost another customer. The city of Austin is the latest in a series of large cities -- including Seattle, Washington, and Oakland, California -- to ditch the high-dollar program, which costs about $750 million annually to administer across the United States. Although DARE's bumper stickers, t-shirts, and gimme caps (dubbed "DARE-aphernalia" by detractors) will long remain ubiquitous in Austin, the police department will eliminate its program starting this school year -- a victim, depending on who you talk to, of resource problems, or its own ineffectiveness. From a manpower perspective, growing numbers of vacancies in the Austin Police Department ranks led to a reassessment of the program, to which the city allocated $500,000 in 1997. Austin has not received federal funding for the program in the last two years.

"Obviously, [DARE] takes officers off the streets," says Assistant Police Chief Bruce Mills. "We don't mind [putting officers in schools] when we can afford to ... but given the number of vacancies, we can't find the officers." In addition, Mills says, the nationally standardized curriculum is too rigid, requiring officers to stick to a single, invariant script. "DARE has very limited curriculum requirements," he says. "We are looking for something you can specialize for a certain district or a certain class." At the same time, Mills says, his department is aware of nagging concerns about DARE's effectiveness. "If you ask, `Is there a better way to impart knowledge about drugs?' the answer is, `We don't know.' ... The feeling is that [DARE] is not the panacea for drug education."

DARE's defenders say that critics are too quick to point fingers at the program for failing to prevent teen drug use. Instead, they say, detractors should look to the world outside the classroom, where popular culture, advertising, and increasing drug availability make a utopian world without gangs or drugs impossible. "DARE is just a piece of the puzzle," says six-year DARE veteran Mike Alexander, an A.P.D. sergeant. "It works only for a moment. If the kids go out and there is nothing to combat everything they hear, they lose it."

Daryl Gates' Brainchild

Started in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department as a pet project of former police chief Daryl Gates, DARE has since spread like kudzu across the United States. The program's 17-week core curriculum, whose lessons have titles such as "Building Self-Esteem" and "Learning Assertiveness," is firmly entrenched in some 75% of school districts nationwide, and 44 foreign countries have versions of DARE in place. Although several cities have dropped the program, others have rushed in as if to fill a vacuum, with New York City the most widely publicized new addition. The program, in which trained officers take over the classroom once a week to teach fifth and sixth graders how to resist drugs and violence, has proved virtually resistant to criticism, at least on a national scale. Since 1988, one day per year has been set aside by presidential decree as "National DARE Day," an event at which public servants typically herald DARE's overwhelming success in hurtling itself into school districts and public consciousness.

But the obvious question -- does DARE work? -- is seldom if ever whispered in the halls of power where budgets are made and presidential orders decreed. Several studies -- including one commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice and later discarded as "methodologically unsound" -- have indicated that it does not. The most often-cited study, a statistical analysis of all known DARE research conducted by North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute in 1994, concluded that "DARE's limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program's popularity and prevalence."

Closer to home, an Austin municipal audit the same year concluded that DARE had no effect in preventing drug-related crimes by juvenile offenders. Meanwhile, juvenile drug use has continued to rise, with 25% of high school students reporting monthly use of illegal drugs in 1996-1997 -- up 2% from the previous year. With 75% of all American children receiving some form of DARE in their education diet, it appears that school districts and police departments are spending more and getting less than ever.

Although DARE literature asserts that the program "supplies the young students with the skills necessary to resist" such cultural pressures, its defenders says that no 17-week program will prevent drug use three or five years down the line.

But if that's the case, why not start DARE, say, in junior high, when kids are at their most impressionable? Charlie Parsons, director of DARE America, which distributes DARE curriculum, workbooks, and those omnipresent bumper stickers, says that the program "was designed to try to get to children before they had experimented. The easiest way to quit is never to start."

David Williams, state coordinator with the Texas DARE Institute in San Marcos, which administers the DARE program statewide, adds that school districts themselves may be to blame. DARE's full 13-year program, which focuses on fifth or sixth grade but puts cops in classrooms from kindergarten on, must be implemented in its entirety to be effective, he says. "Reinforcement is what makes all programs effective," he says. "When DARE is put in place properly and implemented and reinforced properly, it is effective."

Few studies exist to back up Williams' claim, in large part because few school districts have adopted DARE's longer, more costly, program. But short-term studies, which typically examine behavior patterns of DARE "graduates" three to seven years after they complete the program, indicate that the number of these students who go on to experiment with drugs is comparable to the number of non-DARE students who do so.

Poor Success Rate

David Springer, a researcher with the University of Texas' School of Social Work who has published several papers on drug treatment strategies, says that DARE's phenomenal popularity belies its less-than-inspiring success rate. If the goal of school districts is keeping kids off drugs, he says, "Why would you spend that much money on a program that's about as effective as the flip of a coin? The only reason it hasn't been cut despite the research is because, politically, it's very popular."

Indeed, DARE's greatest success appears to be as a public relations campaign. On a national level, DARE gives politicians an easy way to demonstrate that they are serious about getting tough on drugs; locally, police departments see DARE as visible community outreach, a tangible sign that they are not just policing the community, but helping to improve it. Additionally, DARE makes officers more accessible and less intimidating to children who may be at risk for drug use or gang influence, says Assistant A.P.D. Chief Mills. "There's great interaction between the officers and students," he says. "It's an excellent example of officers forming relationships with kids."

As trusted confidantes, however, DARE officers must operate in two conflicting worlds. As teachers, they must serve as approachable role models to whom students can confide about drug- and gang-related problems; but as police officers, they can never forget that their foremost duty is to enforce the law. The result of these conflicting aims, critics say, is a confusing and unrealistic "no-use" policy which, a Department of Justice study has found, students overwhelmingly reject.

"Zero tolerance is one of the worst campaigns we've tried to pull off in the war on drugs," says UT's Springer. "As a nation, maybe we need to move toward a harm-reduction approach ... because kids are going to continue to experiment." But DARE, whose curriculum has been widely criticized for blurring distinctions between "hard" and "soft" drugs and exaggerating the effects of marijuana and alcohol, recognizes no such possibility. Its curriculum equates drug use with drug abuse in the second lesson, telling students flatly that "no use of any substance is acceptable."

Although the jury is out on whether such tactics make students less likely to confide in police, many teachers feel that the job of educating kids ought to fall to parents and educators, not armed law enforcement officials. Lance Miles, a former fifth-grade teacher whose students took DARE classes weekly, says that although the DARE officers he dealt with genuinely tried to relate to the kids in his classes, they varied widely in their teaching ability. While the officers did bring up issues -- such as alcoholism and family drug abuse -- which are not addressed by the district's health book, Miles wonders if any program can substitute for positive parental influence. "A lot of parents aren't doing their jobs, and we're left to do that job [at school], telling them things they ought to be taught about at home. ... There's only so much" that teachers and police officers can do before parents must take over, Miles says.

But don't expect AISD to hand drug education over to parents any time soon. Currently, according to district spokeswoman Nicole Wright, the district is considering a number of alternative programs, including a five-week pilot called "Project Yes," targeted at fourth- and sixth-grade classes. In the meantime, school counselors and health classes are filling in the gaps in AISD's drug education program.

With Austin kicking the DARE habit, will other area school districts follow suit? Unlikely, say both DARE representatives and officials with the Travis County Sheriff's Department, which administers DARE to districts outside Austin's city limits. Sgt. Wayne Singleton, of the department's Community Services division, says he sees no reason to abandon the program, which has received a "pretty positive" response from the community. DARE leader Parsons characterizes the situation in Austin as "man bites dog," an aberration in a nation moving closer, if anything, toward universal adoption of DARE. But with drug use on the rise across America, and DARE under increasing scrutiny by school districts looking for more than an expensive PR campaign, it's almost certain that more districts will take a long look at DARE and choose to "just say no."

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