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Researchers Question Value of DARE's Scare Tactics

California Educator / APRIL 1997

by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin

Today's youngsters have had more drug education than any other group in the history of this country. Record amounts of money are being spent on drug education. Yet increasing numbers of children are just saying "yes" instead of"no".

Why are we spending more and getting less?

According to some researchers the reason may be DARE, a well- known drug-prevention school program that stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. The new drug study is sending shockwaves throughout the academic community.

The study's researchers say DARE and other Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Education (DATE) programs simply aren't working, and that it's time for school districts to re-evaluate their use.

Started 14 years ago by the Los Angeles Police Department, DARE is the nation's leading anti-drug curriculum. Police officers usually conduct the programs in classrooms, engaging children in role playing and 'just-say-no' skills.

DARE is the only drug education program specifically sanctioned for funding under the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, and fits the requirement of advocating a no-use policy. This year, according to the researchers. the program will receive $750 million, with approximately $600 million coming from federal, state and local governments.

In a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate the effectiveness of DARE and DATE programs, the following conclusions were reached:

  • DARE's limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program's popularity and prevalence.
  • DARE could be taking the place of other, more beneficial drug-use curricula that adolescents could be receiving.
  • DARE's core-curriculum effect on drug use is slight, and except for tobacco, is not statistically significant.

As one of the few major studies to interview students as well as educators, the study further concluded:

  • Students overwhelmingly reject the "no-use" or zero tolerance messages as not credible.
  • Seven out of 10 students said they felt "neutral" or"negative" toward DATE and DARE educators.
  • Four out of 10 said the programs had no impact "at all" on their substance use decisions.
  • Only one in 10 students said the programs affected them a lot or completely.
  • Programs intended to assist "at-risk" students failed to provide needed services and often resulted in detention, suspension and expulsion.

Despite these provocative findings in the study, the Department of Justice has not published the DARE report it commissioned. Similarly, the California Department of Education has not published the DATE study, citing "methodological flaws" even though data collection and analysis were performed with the departments oversight and cooperation. The studies were reviewed and found to be scientifically sound by 35 independent experts, and the findings have been accepted for publication by leading research journals.

Criticism of DARE and DATE has allegedly been suppressed in other venues, according to a recent article published in The New Republic, titled "Don't You DARE!" Strong criticism has been leveled at the program's DARE box, where students are encouraged to put anonymous notes, which may include questions or accusations against those accused of using drugs. Some reports suggest that students in DARE programs have turned in their parents to law-enforcement authorities.

Dr Joel Brown, director of the Berkeley-based Educational Research Consultants and an author of the study. says that the No.1 reason the program doesn't work is its "no-use message" regarding drugs and alcohol.

Brown, who says he's in no way advocating adolescent substance abuse, claims that the students are old enough to understand the difference between substance use and substance abuse. Because they find the program inaccurate, they reject the message of DARE, says Brown, who helped to interview 240 youths in 40 focus groups across the state, as well as 400 educators and administrators.

"They know that one beer is not as bad as 10, and they see their parents have a glass of wine with dinner without ill effects. "Their educational reality doesn't match their everyday reality; and the result is cognitive dissonance, where students come to believe educators lack credibility".

Educators, says Brown, should be orienting kids toward preventing the riskiest behavior with substance abuse rather than dwelling on a no-use policy; One way to get that message across would be to state, "We do not want you to drink. In that statement, we are not advocating substance use. But if you do drink, please don't drink and drive.

Because educators advocating no-use policies may use scare tactics and don't consider experimentation as an option, lifesaving information may not be emphasized. "We don't want our children to die because they made an uneducated decision and didn't have accurate information," says Brown. "We don't want kids to use drugs,but the reality is that it might happen. We want to prevent horrible things from happening - such as them getting AIDS from intravenous drug use - by giving them honest and accurate information"

Dr. Marianne D'Emidio-Caston,co-director of the DATE evaluation, says students want the whole story, but they also want to be able to trust adults. "Students want a confidential setting to talk about their experiences, without fear of being suspended or expelled. With a no-tolerance policy, the ones who are having the most difficulty with substance abuse are being exited from the system. They can't come forward and talk about it, or get help. They start feeling disassociated from the school, are labeled 'bad kids' and feel that all the school wants to do is get them out."

The researcher, who also makes it clear that she does not advocate drug use, says students turn to each other because they can't trust adults. "They start to take responsibility for their friends with problems, and act as counselors and offer support. The problem with that is that students are not trained, nor mature enough, to act in this capacity.

Margaret Brown, chair of CTAs School Management Committee and a member of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, agrees with the conclusions of the controversial study. "My observation is that students want information that is realistic to the world they live in," says Brown, who teaches in a continuation high school. "Drugs are a part of the world they live in, in many cases. They don't want scare tactics. They want information about how drugs affect the body. The kids say, "Give me a real message, and don't talk to me like I'm awful if I've tried it."

In an age where children of Baby Boomers realize their parents' generation invented drug experimentation and the president claims not to have inhaled marijuana, honesty may be the toughest challenge yet facing those teaching drug education. But the stakes are high.

"When drug education politics starts to overtake science, children are the losers:' says Brown. "It should be of deep concern to those of us who care about the well-being of our youth."

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