Drug Prevention Placebo

How DARE wastes time, money, and police

The October 1994 government flyer seemed like sweet vindication to the thousands of parents, police, and teachers who supported the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program, better known by the acronym DARE. "The D.A.R.E. Program: A Review of Prevalence, User Satisfaction, and Effectiveness," the headline on the single page boasted, describing a new study of the drug-education program. More happy news followed. "Not only is DARE widespread and popular, but demand for it is high," read the flyer. DARE's "...appeal cuts across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines [with] considerable support for expansion of the program."

Sweet vindication indeed. Since its inception in 1983, the DARE curriculum had rapidly spread from the Los Angeles area to schools across the country. In fact, more than half of all schools in the United States currently use the program; almost 20 million schoolkids a year are visited at least once by a DARE instructor. Despite such success, however, critics had been increasingly vocal in recent years, attacking the program as a costly and ineffective way of teaching kids about the perils of drug abuse. They claimed that DARE was just another untested pedagogical gimmick that served no purpose other than soaking up private donations and local, state, and federal tax dollars.

The newly released study, then, would simultaneously silence naysayers while boosting DARE's shot at more public funds and deeper penetration into schools. This is no penny ante business, either: DARE, which was specifically held up as exemplary in two sections of last fall's crime bill, is competing with other drug-ed programs for a chunk of the more than $500 million the feds put aside for such instruction. And running DARE takes a lot of money. A DARE spokesperson claims the program costs somewhat less than $200 million annually, but other credible estimates range as high as $700 million, once all costs are considered.

The claims in the government flyer were accurate--to a point. The three-year study, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, the research office for the U.S. Department of Justice, did include those observations. Researchers found that DARE raises children's self-esteem, polishes their social skills, and improves their attitudes toward police.

But unfortunately for DARE boosters, the study also proved something else: DARE doesn't have a measurable effect on drug abuse. While the flyer devoted ample space to puffery, it dismissed the critical heart of the study in just two terse sentences. And it did not mention that NIJ had refused to publish the study, despite positive peer review.

Charges and countercharges flew throughout the early weeks of October. NIJ was trying to put a positive spin on bad news and suppressing the study, claimed DARE critics. Not so, NIJ Director Jeremy Travis replied in one letter to the editor: Questions about "the scientific validity" of the study were raised by NIJ reviewers, and the work did not meet their "high standards of methodological rigor."

Travis's letter was a stinging rebuke to the prestigious Research Triangle Institute (RTI), which has authored hundreds of government studies without complaint. Under pressure to withdraw the study or rewrite the conclusions, the scientists stood by their work. "We agreed to disagree," says principal author Susan Ennett.

Accusations of faulty research trouble Ennett and her co-authors, who point out that ongoing government reviews examined their work in progress. "We worked with NIJ throughout, sending drafts and getting back comments," says Ennett. "[The review] didn't just happen at the end." Ennett says there were four outside reviews over the lifetime of the three-year project, as well as in-house reviews by NIJ itself.

Another curious aspect of the government reaction is that the RTI study contained no original research. Only previously published studies were examined, and all had reached the same dismal conclusions about DARE. Says Ennett, "The results of all the studies used in the meta-analysis were consistent; it's not like the conclusions of these different studies were all over the place. We did not find any support for [a statistically significant] impact on drug use, and they show DARE has no effect at all on marijuana use." Another author of the study is more blunt: "The kids learn to have respect for police: fine and dandy. But if it's sold for the prevention of drug use, it's not working."

But even if NIJ had signed off on the study, the government had another excuse ready: A new, improved DARE was introduced in the autumn of 1994. And, as the flyer noted, "The effects of the new curriculum on learning and behavior may in turn call for a new evaluation." In the eyes of the Justice Department, in other words, all the research that proves DARE ineffective is now invalid.

This position infuriates many researchers, who view it as a disingenuous attempt to deflect criticism. Claiming that a revised program is entirely new is a well-known academic shell game. "There's not a new curriculum--there's a slightly changed curriculum," argues Richard Clayton, director of the Center of Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky. Clayton, who is now concluding a five-year evaluation of DARE in Kentucky, says his findings also match the conclusions in the RTI study.

"I'm really not surprised NIJ refused to publish it," says Clayton, "but I'm disappointed. DARE has a leadership role to play because it's in half the schools. An organization that receives that much public funding has an obligation to be honest with the public."

In the quiet, scholarly circles of drug-prevention research, the true reasons why NIJ hurried to distance itself will be debated for years. Was there pressure from DARE? "Roberta Silverman doesn't speak for the National Institute of Justice," a spokesperson for NIJ coldly explains. "We can't control DARE America. We don't give them any money. We don't have anything to do with them."

Roberta Silverman is the spokeswoman for DARE America, the nonprofit that provides training for the police officers who teach the curriculum in schools and that also supplies DARE diplomas, hats, umbrellas, pencils, shirts, and other paraphernalia sold to promote the program. Although DARE America had no direct influence on the decision by NIJ, Silverman admits contacting a scientific journal that intended to publish the critical RTI analysis of DARE. "I called The American Journal of Public Health. They didn't know the whole study hadn't been released and they didn't know it was taken out of context [of the NIJ report]."

One of the most respected academic journals in its field, The American Journal of Public Health accepted the RTI paper after it had been peer reviewed. Sabine Beisler, Public Health's director of publication, told USA Today that "DARE has tried to interfere with the publication of this. They tried to intimidate us." Beisler declines further comment, except to confirm that she was accurately quoted, and that the journal received several calls from DARE America.

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