I'm at the February 2001 Teens at the Table conference, a feel-good event sponsored by a coalition of Los Angeles youth organizations and high schools. It's designed to boost self-esteem and teach teenagers how to make smart decisions. In one of the sessions, a group of students is about to learn how easy it is to stay off drugs. It doesn't require anything as lame as red ribbons or "Just Say No" chants. It just takes knowing what constitutes a healthy decision -- one that is all your own -- coupled with a little real-life practice.
The kids test their skills with a role-playing skit. The scenario: Two girls are walking home from a party late at night when a car full of boys pulls up to offer them a ride. "The boys have been drinking and smoking," the script reads. "Trouble is imminent."
Here is where the teenagers are supposed to call on their newfound decision making skills in choosing whether to get into the car. They're asked to think about their options, weigh the consequences, and decide what to do based on what would be best for them -- no judgments, no right or wrong, none of that thoughtless Just Say No stuff from the 1980s and early '90s. Today's drug prevention lessons, scientifically crafted and tested, are supposed to be all about teaching teenagers how to make choices, not telling them what to do; respecting their autonomy, not treating them like ventriloquist's dummies.
So the teenagers choose. If they don't get into the car, they walk home and everything is fine. But if they do...
Boys: Hop in girls! (Eventually the boys get out of hand and come on to the girls.) Girls: Stop it! Boys: Come on, it will be fun! Girls: No! (Car accident.)
The teachers say there's a choice here, but these kids aren't stupid. They can stay out of the car and live, or get in the car and die. So...just say no.
Dare to Keep Your Kids off DARE
That three-word mantra "Just Say No" became a national punch line for a reason: It didn't keep kids away from drugs. Drug use among teenagers dropped steadily from the early 1980s until 1992, mirroring a decline in drug use among adults. But this downward trend began before the anti-drug curricula developed in the 1980s, exemplified by Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), could have had any impact. The drop was detected in surveys of students who had never heard of DARE or Just Say No. And by the early 1990s, when students who were exposed to DARE and similar programs in grade school and middle school reached their late teens, drug use among teenagers was going up again. In the 2002 Monitoring the Future Study, 53 percent of high school seniors said they had used illegal drugs, compared to 41 percent in 1992. Past-month use rose from 14 percent to 25 percent during the same period.
Meanwhile, the leading model for drug education in the United States has been DARE, which brings police officers into elementary and middle school classrooms to warn kids away from drugs. DARE claims to teach kids how to resist peer pressure and say no to drugs through skits, cartoons, and hypothetical situations. Founded by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates in 1983 and organized as a nonprofit corporation (DARE America) in 1987, DARE is still used in around three-quarters of the nation's school districts. At the annual DARE Officers Association Dinner a few years ago, Bill Clinton's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, declared that "DARE knows what needs to be done to reduce drug use among children, and you are doing it -- successfully." But as McCaffrey should have known, the effectiveness of DARE has never been demonstrated, a fact DARE America itself implicitly conceded when it announced, half a year after the drug czar's praise, that it was revamping its program.
During the last decade DARE has been widely criticized as unproven and unsophisticated. In one of the most damning studies, published in 1999, a team of researchers at the University of Kentucky found that 10 years after receiving the anti-drug lessons, former DARE students were no different from non-DARE students in terms of drug use, drug attitudes, or self-esteem. "This report adds to the accumulating literature on DARE's lack of efficacy in preventing or reducing substance use," the researchers noted. In a 2003 report, the General Accounting Office reviewed six long-term evaluations of DARE and concluded that there were "no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received DARE...and students who did not." The surgeon general, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Education also have declared DARE ineffective.
Determined not to repeat past mistakes and prodded by a federal government that lately has been demanding accountability in education, teachers today are turning to prevention programs backed by "scientifically based" claims of effectiveness. In 1998 the Department of Education, concerned that money was being wasted on a mishmash of ineffective programs, decided to fund only those proven by "scientifically based research" to reduce or prevent drug use. Testimonials and we-think-it's-working assurances like those cited by DARE would no longer pass muster. Every prevention program now needed hard numbers, objective experiments, and independently reviewed conclusions based on long-term follow-ups to prove they worked.
In 2000 the Department of Education convened an expert panel that judged nine prevention programs "exemplary" for their proven effectiveness and 33 others "promising." Comprised mostly of educators and health professionals, the panel gave the "exemplary" or "promising" nod only to programs backed by at least one scientific evaluation of effectiveness (DARE did not make the cut). Schools using programs that were not on the list would risk losing their slice of the Department of Education's $635 million drug prevention budget. In 2001 President George W. Bush included the "scientifically based research" criterion for drug education in his No Child Left Behind Act, signing into law what had previously been only administrative practice.
But the officially endorsed alternatives to DARE aren't necessarily better. Once you remove the shiny packaging and discard the "new and improved" labels, you'll find a product that's disappointingly familiar. The main thing that has changed is the rhetoric. Instead of "Just Say No," you'll hear, "Use your refusal skills." The new programs encourage teachers to go beyond telling kids that drug use is bad. Instead, they tell teenagers to "use your decision making skills" to make "healthy life choices." Since drugs aren't healthy, the choice is obvious: Just say no.
The persistence of this theme is no accident. Prevention programs can get the federal government's stamp of approval only if they deliver "a clear and consistent message that the illegal use of drugs" is "wrong and harmful." But this abstinence-only message leaves teenagers ill-equipped to avoid drug-related hazards if they do decide to experiment.
After examining some of the new anti-drug curricula and watching a sampling of them in action, I strongly doubt these programs are winning many hearts and minds.