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.
Despite pressure, Public Health published the report in September 1994. Public Health Editor Dr. Mervin Susser sees the attempt to interfere with the publication of a scientific paper as misconceived at best, censorious at worst. Susser adds, "The worst of it is, that this study was exceptionally well-reviewed by peers in the field. It's very rare that an article passes so unscratched through review. The uniform appraisal was that it was first rate."
How can Public Health reviewers think the work first-rate when NIJ reviewers viewed it as flawed? Roberta Silverman has an idea: "I've asked myself that before. I think [NIJ] had a better understanding of the issues, and it reflects [Public Health's] dispute with NIJ. It was hot and sexy for Public Health to criticize DARE."
"[We] decided not to publish it because there were problems with the research," says NIJ spokeswoman Ann Voight. Last fall, Voight told the Boston Globe, "We stand behind the DARE Program as it has evolved. It has made a positive impact on children and law enforcement."
In other instances, DARE supporters have lashed out against those who fault the program. After a 1993 story questioning the effectiveness of DARE appeared in USA Today, reporter Dennis Cauchon received letters from classrooms in different parts of the country, all addressed to "Dear DARE-basher," and all using near-identical language.
When a major television network planned a story on the program, DARE America cooperated until it became apparent that the story wasn't going to be a puff piece. "They worked very hard to get our story suppressed," the producer says. After filming a segment about one prominent anti-DARE activist, the producer remembers an angry confrontation with Silverman, who asked why they were "talking to a pro-marijuana supporter."
To tell DARE supporters that you have spoken with program critics often invokes astonishment, like telling Baptists you've been to hell and chatted with Old Nick himself. This us-against-them viewpoint is clearly stated in a November 1994 press release announcing the Substance Abuse Prevention and Law Enforcement Community Partnership Conference. Titled "Pro-Drug Groups Behind Attack on Prevention Programs," the release damns as advocates of drug legalization any who criticize DARE.
"Our detractors like to characterize DARE as an 'Orwellian reality' or 'Big Brother' at work," DARE America Executive Director Glenn Levant is quoted as saying. "These bush-league tactics are transparent for what they are: attempts to support various individual personal agendas at the expense of our children."
But with all that has been written about DARE, few critics have actually been inside a DARE classroom, and few supporters know the origins of the controversial program. Only when you understand both does the true picture emerge. Whether that picture appears "Orwellian" depends on the viewer, but it certainly supports the claim that DARE fails at its basic goal of preventing drug use.
In the DARE Classroom
DARE Officer Terry Campbell is on stage. It is the first time he has visited this fourth-grade class, but most of the children already know him well. As the full-time DARE instructor for Petaluma, California, he has been in the classrooms since 1988. One of the program's recent graduates was Polly Klaas, whose abduction and murder brought sad fame to this small town, 45 minutes north of San Francisco.
After he introduces himself, the 20-minute lesson begins. Campbell asks if anyone knows what DARE means and a girl is quick to respond, "Drug Abuse Resistance Education."
"What's a drug?" Campbell asks. The kids have ready answers, a mix of formal names and common slang. Cocaine. Alcohol. Tobacco. Coke. Pot.
"I know a different kind of drug," a boy adds. "It's a medicine."
Campbell asks, "What is it?"
"Penicillin." The officer asks if his parents ever gave him Children's Tylenol for a headache. Yes, they have.
"Did you take it in the right way?"
"Today, maybe you have a bad headache. Should you take 10 Tylenol?"
"No," the children chorus.
"That's right. That's called drug abuse. That's all a drug is—something that can help you or hurt you, depending on how you take it."
The children listen attentively. Campbell is more than a police officer; he is also a natural teacher, demonstrating a genius that outreaches mere talent. In front of a class, he is transformed, riffing off the kids' questions and comments like Robin Williams, connecting with every child in the room. Hands down, he is one of the best teachers imaginable. DARE and the city of Petaluma are fortunate.
In all classes, time is set aside for questions. Before school, Campbell accurately predicted the first question: "Have you ever shot anybody?" Similar career-day questions follow as the intrigued fourth graders quiz their visiting policeman. His profession is close to their minds; like all DARE officers, Campbell wears his uniform—but sans handgun, walkie-talkie, and other tools of his trade.
These brief kindergarten through fifth-grade classroom visits, Campbell later explains, lay the groundwork for the DARE core curriculum, taught in the sixth grade. Campbell gives safety advice, reminds them to call 911 "if they need to," and prepares them for their DARE sessions. Not insignificantly, he also becomes a familiar and trusted figure. "One of the most beneficial things of the program is that kids get to see police officers like human beings," he says, corroborating a finding of the NIJ-sponsored study.
Next in his schedule is a sixth-grade DARE lesson, where Campbell teaches the fourth of the 17 lessons in the DARE curriculum. It opens with one of the most controversial elements of the program: the DARE Box. On a window shelf rests the decorated shoebox, where anonymous notes can be passed to Campbell.
Campbell reads the first question: "Someone in my family is doing drugs and I'm worried that if I say anything it will make it worse." Heads spin. Who is it?
"Don't look around," Campbell says quickly. "It isn't important to know who wrote it."
A girl raises her hand. "Maybe that kid wants to talk to you about it."
"I'm more than willing to do that," he smiles warmly. "You all know me." He asks them the consequences of using an illegal drug.
"You could get in trouble," one child says. Another adds, "You could die."
Says Campbell, "It's probably OK to get them into trouble, if that's going to happen."
A boy asks, "What if it's one of your parents?"
"You should talk to a teacher or a counselor, or another adult you trust." As Campbell begins the lesson proper, he slips the note into his pocket.
Of the 27 children in this class, only the boy who apparently asked the question does not immediately open his workbook. Instead, he toys with the paper nameplate sitting on his desk. On the side of the wide triangle facing him are printed the eight ways to say no as taught by DARE. On the opposite side—the side facing Campbell—is the child's name.
What happened to the note? "I threw it away," Campbell says later. "But I didn't put it in the wastebasket in the classroom because one of the kids could find out who wrote it." Campbell was occupied with preparing for the lesson and didn't notice the nervous boy. Still, he says he wouldn't have acted on it if he had. "First, we don't know if they were illegal drugs—it could be alcohol or tobacco. Secondly, I may have a feeling that a child is having problems, but I can't make that assumption. Maybe he was fidgeting because he needed to go to the bathroom."
Several times in the last six years, Campbell has found signed notes in the DARE Box. "If a child wrote that he was being abused or in danger, of course I would follow up on it." Recently, he received a note indicating child abuse. "I got the child appropriate help," says Campbell.
The 14 Percent Solution
"How many of you think people will actually force you to use drugs?" Campbell asks, bringing Maggie, one of the girls in the class, to the front of the room. (The names of the children have been changed.) "It's possible that somebody's gonna hold a gun to your head and say, take these drugs. More common is the form that Maggie and I have been best friends since kindergarten and I say, 'Hey, Maggie, I got some marijuana here and I think it's really great'…"
"NO!" the child interrupts loudly, with a self-conscious giggle.
"…Would you like to try it?"
"Come on, we won't be best friends if you don't."
It is the introduction to a lesson on peer pressure and leads into a discussion of how friends can subtly coax agreement. Campbell reads from the DARE workbook: "How many seventh-grade students out of 100 have been drunk from any alcoholic beverage?" The children, organized into groups of five and six, are to come up with a collective answer.
More than a little confusion spreads through the classroom about the assignment. The workbook explains this is the result of a "recent national survey," but many don't understand what that means. Does it include New York? one child asks. San Jose? A couple of minutes pass as the children struggle to understand what they are asked to do.
As the groups debate, Campbell wanders through the room, eavesdropping. Just as he approaches, one of the groups settles on 17.5 percent. A girl writes the number in her workbook as Campbell peers over her shoulder. She looks to him for approval but he says nothing, and his face remains blank. As he moves to the next group, she turns to classmates: "Let's go a little bit higher; he didn't seem to like that."
The five groups come to five different solutions, ranging between 42 percent and 70 percent. Campbell smiles; the exercise has worked. The correct answer, he reveals, is 14 percent. He points to the group that first had a 17.5 percent answer. He overheard one boy vote for 15 percent but relent against the collective will of the group. "This demonstrates how peer pressure works," Campbell says. "We allowed our peers to talk us into it. Is everybody out there doing drugs?"
The class chimes no, in unison.
"Just because somebody does it doesn't mean everybody does. Did I surprise you that the figure was so low?" Campbell asks.
"No," the class responds again, but weaker.
Unfortunately, the 14 percent statistic used in the lesson is incorrect. And it's not even from a recent nationwide survey—the number comes from research done between 1989 and 1990 in California alone. The survey is done every two years for the state attorney general, and the most recent figure for seventh graders who have ever been intoxicated is 23 percent.
Even though DARE's statistic is wrong, it is still lower than any of the estimates by the children. The objective of the lesson is valid; childhood perceptions of normal behavior can be badly skewed.
More troublesome is the lesson design. Only a wrong answer is "right"; the lesson fails if the class picks accurate numbers. When one group chose 17.5 percent, Campbell—probably unconsciously—led them to raise their guesstimate by implying disapproval. Such subtle problems with design can give even brilliant teachers like Campbell fits.
Shown a transcript of this session, researchers not associated with DARE agree that the point of the lesson was valuable but dismiss the DARE exercise as useless. "Kids don't relate to national or state data," says Joel Moskowitz, who has authored evaluations of several drug education programs. "It's what their friends are doing that counts."
Moskowitz and others were also critical of the role-playing between Campbell and Maggie. "It should have been between two adolescents," Moskowitz says. "She just parroted the lines the police officer expected. It's not going to be so easy to say no to a friend if it's going to make them your enemy."
As the primary author of the DARE curriculum, Dr. Ruth Rich responds to their criticism. "The problem with this lesson is that the kids don't understand the math," she says. Not so, at least in Petaluma. The children in this class actually skidded to a halt over the concept of a nationwide survey. The same confusion was repeated in another sixth-grade class, later in the day. If the point of the lesson is to teach kids that not everyone does drugs and "that concept is not being taught, we need to work on it," Rich concedes.
What about the complaint that a peer should have played the role of the friend offering Maggie drugs? Says Rich, "We have the officers role-play with the youngsters. We try to get the situation as real as possible, but we would never have a child offering a joint—it reinforces the negative."
Birth of a Notion
The problems with this lesson demonstrate something else as well: Designing an effective anti-drug program ain't easy.
When Maggie role-plays saying no to Officer Campbell, she reinforces her skills at turning down drugs from a uniformed policeman. Not a likely real-life scenario. But if Maggie rejects a reefer from classmate Tommy, Maggie has a more realistic experience—and Tommy gets some practice in pushing drugs.
Similarly, it's important for kids to know that drug abuse is the exception rather than the norm. Is there a better solution than the troublesome "national survey" question?
"They borrowed that from SMART," says veteran researcher Bill Hansen. "We moved well beyond that, but it took us years to find out how to best get the information across to kids."
Started in 1981, Project SMART (short for Self-Management and Resistance Training) was one of the pioneer anti-drug school programs, preceding even Nancy Reagan's plea to "Just say no." Hansen was one of the researchers hired by the University of Southern California to develop SMART. To test their theories, they used the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District.
By all accounts, those were heady times for the scientists. With over 20,000 middle-school students available, L.A. Unified was a living laboratory. At weekly meetings, then-L.A. Unified health education specialist and eventual DARE curriculum author Ruth Rich provided classroom-based feedback to the team of USC researchers developing the program.
USC was testing two completely different versions of the SMART curriculum. Bill Hansen explains: "One was 'affective.' It focused on self-esteem and setting goals. The other was 'resistance training,' which concentrated on social influences, such as [cigarette and alcohol] ads."
But while Project SMART was still in its toddling stages, another player joined the game: then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates. "In 1983, Daryl Gates came on board," Rich says. "They had just had another high school drug bust, and he said he'd rather deploy his resources for prevention, that they were going to be coming into the schools."
Fortunately, a promising new drug-prevention program was at hand: Project SMART. Rich approached Andy Johnson, leader of the USC research team, with the idea of sharing SMART with the cops. "They [police] were going to be coming into the schools," says Rich. "I asked Andy if we could work with him and he said, no, he had problems with [police in the classroom], so we took SMART and used that."
Though sympathetic to Rich's dilemma, Johnson says he had serious objections to handing an experimental educational program over to the local police. He worried that police might have credibility problems with sophisticated, urban Los Angeles seventh graders.
Another concern was unrelated to drug education: He wanted the police version of SMART confined to L.A. Unified—the program was copyrighted by USC. "There was discussion about copyright concerns, but Ruth said they had made changes [to the curriculum]. I made the decision to let it go, not pursue the issue. We never thought it would become an international movement and DARE would take on a life of its own."
Rich says they asked permission to use the SMART curriculum, and, for her new program, boldly combined the affective and resistance-training models. She also incorporated police officers to teach the material. Did Gates try to dictate what would be taught? No, Rich insists: "There was pressure that we had to provide a program, but [Gates] didn't tell us what had to be in it."
DARE premiered later in 1983, piloted in 50 schools with 10 police officers. Rich heeded Andy Johnson's advice about grade level. The new DARE program was taught in fifth and sixth grades instead of seventh.
This slide to a younger age leads DARE critics to suggest that the program is developmentally inappropriate, that the material is better suited for older children. Several reviewers who read the "national survey" transcript commented that it revealed that the children weren't ready for this type of material.
As DARE was going forth and multiplying in L.A. Unified schools, the USC team continued its research. They discovered an important difference between the two versions of the SMART curriculum: The affective program didn't work. Not only that, it had the dreaded "boomerang" effect—it actually encouraged some children to fiddle with drugs. Yet the school district had already adopted the affective program as part of the new DARE curriculum.
"L.A. Unified grew distant," recalls Hansen. "Which cut them off from our research of the two programs, the one that worked and one that didn't. They just put the two together. What they took was the prototype; we went through 30 versions of the curriculum, so a lot of the stuff they lifted was antiquated, in our view."
Andy Johnson also sees DARE as reflecting the "antiquated" SMART prototype, and remembers offering to help fix it. "We talked to them about evaluating it, but DARE was never interested," he says. Johnson recalls there was an "anti-intellectual attitude" among the new leadership elbowing their way into the program. But to Gates and others, DARE didn't need fixing; what it needed was money, and friends in high places.
Spreading the Gospel
By the autumn of 1985, DARE was entrenched in the Los Angeles schools. That by itself was good news in the "Just Say No" years; most of the other drug-prevention programs in use around the country were small-scale projects, untested outside of a handful of classrooms. And worse, many of those programs were found to have little or no effect on drug use when evaluated. Some even had the boomerang effect, like the prototypes of Project SMART. There was just one problem with DARE: It hadn't been independently evaluated at all.
To find out how well it worked, the National Institute of Justice sent consultant William DeJong to California. "I wrote the first published study of DARE [in 1986], and it showed that there were positive results," says DeJong. "Based on my study, NIJ decided to devote money to DARE." Another reason NIJ went ahead, according to DeJong, was that DARE was based on Project SMART. Then in its fifth year, the government-funded SMART had refined its program several generations beyond the prototype adapted by DARE.
With the stamp of NIJ approval, Gates won a $140,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a part of the Department of Justice, to take DARE nationwide. DeJong continued to be involved, authoring the DARE implementation manual for BJA.
While $140,000 might be enough to fund a hometown anti-drug program, DARE needed far more to go national. The solution came from Congress in the form of the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986. Buried in the small print was an entitlement for at least 10 percent of the state grants to governors to go only to programs that included "classroom instruction by uniformed law enforcement officials." A host of other criteria were listed that were met only by programs "such as Project Drug Abuse Resistance Education." By 1992, their share of the federal pie came to almost $10 million.
To manage the growing DARE movement and help spread the gospel, the nonprofit corporation DARE America was formed in 1987. More grants from BJA soon followed, which allowed DARE America to establish regional training centers throughout the United States. DARE was fast becoming America's de facto drug-education program.
The 1986 entitlement helped fuel DARE's explosive growth, but it by no means paid all the bills. Most funding came from the army of fervent DARE supporters in the community, eager to find an easy solution to the problem of juvenile drug abuse. DARE became "a rallying symbol to do something positive about the drug abuse problem," as one state director of DARE told Congress in 1990.
Once again, Petaluma, California is probably typical. It costs the city over $100,000 each year to pay the salaries for Officer Campbell and a part-time reserve officer and to supply DARE workbooks and awards to approximately 800 children. (Graduates are given free DARE T-shirts, pencils, rulers, and a diploma.) Civic-minded real-estate developers have supplied most of these funds since 1990, and individuals in the community also make donations. But the contractors' tithe ends this year; what will the city do?
Probably look to Uncle Sam. The Drug Free Schools and Communities Act—now called the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994—includes more than $400 million dollars for DARE and other programs. Gone is the $10 million entitlement; now DARE competes with other programs for its piece of the federal action. But of the 14 activities listed in the bill, most are vague: "Before-and after-school activities" is a typical description. And not only is DARE mentioned by name, it is specified twice, in different parts of the act. (The only other specific program mentioned is "Project Legal Lives," a program for district attorneys to conduct mock trials.)
And it's not difficult to predict how a city like Petaluma will spend its drug-education dollars. DARE has enormous grassroots support; the kids like it; the parents and teachers like it; and perhaps most of all, the local police like it. Any program with such grassroots support wields considerable clout on Capitol Hill; when the Clinton administration recommended eliminating drug-education entitlements in March 1994, the House killed the motion, 418 to 1.
DARE also appears twice in the crime bill, where it will wrestle all comers for $284 million by 1996, rising to $375 million by the end of the decade. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, takes credit for the inclusion. "As you know, it's a pretty popular program, so it wasn't a question of not including it," says a Biden staffer.
How much does DARE cost nationally? Several newspapers have claimed $700 million annually, close to the appropriation for the entire Drug Enforcement Administration. DARE America spokesperson Silverman sees the $700 million statistic as sloppy journalism. "In 1992, we estimated the value of officer services at $153 million. Actual cash for DARE America was $1.5 million. I don't know where they got $700 million."
But according to USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon, the estimate comes from her boss, DARE America Executive Director Glenn Levant. "Levant and I went over all the numbers," Cauchon says. "Including every cent in private donations. It includes all money actually spent on DARE every year."
All told, local DARE programs are eligible for a direct share of more than half a billion federal dollars annually, still short of the $700 million total in operating costs. As in Petaluma, the difference will be made up by civic groups, individuals, and local government. School districts that are strapped to buy textbooks pitch in, as do cities and counties teetering on bankruptcy. In Petaluma, DARE Officer Terry Campbell tells a story: "At the end of the school year, the teacher asked the kids what they wanted to do with the leftover class treasury. She told them they could have a pizza party, whatever they wanted. The kids said they wanted to give the money to DARE." With such enthusiasm for the program, it almost begs the question: What if it doesn't work?
The Emperor's Clothing
DARE keeps children away from drugs. That raison d'être sold thousands of communities on the program and keeps DARE in the schools, even if budget cuts must be made somewhere else. But by 1991, there were more than a dozen studies that claimed DARE didn't work at all. Not that it was useless: It had positive effects on children's knowledge about drugs, helped develop their social skills, and improved their attitude about police. But all these studies said the same thing about drug use—if DARE had any effect at all, it was short lived.
Except, of course, for one study: the 1986 evaluation by William DeJong, used by NIJ to start the DARE bandwagon rolling. When DeJong's research appeared in the Journal of Drug Education, his colleagues called the design of his study "seriously flawed." Among their complaints was that the children were given no test before starting the DARE program, which made it impossible to evaluate any claims of improvement. Critics also noted that the study revealed positive effects only with boys; there was a significant negative impact on the DARE girls—the boomerang effect.
In 1991, NIJ decided to settle the question of DARE's worth by hiring analysts at Research Triangle Institute (RTI) to do a comprehensive evaluation. To DARE, it seemed like vindication and due respect was finally at hand. "The review of the DARE evaluation literature will give us ammunition to respond to critics who charge that DARE has not proved its effectiveness," read a DARE letter sent to state coordinators.
RTI researchers, of course, found no new ammunition for DARE in the studies. Yes, the program improved the relationship between schoolchildren and the police, and taught the kids many useful things. But as far as stopping them from using drugs… sorry.
A preliminary version of the RTI report was released at a 1993 San Diego conference, which devoted an entire day to DARE. After listening to the presentations, DARE America's Glenn Levant dismissed the criticism out of hand. He said, "The only way that I know that you can determine if DARE is effective is through a long-term, seven-year-plus longitudinal national evaluation." The studies discussed, Levant argued, were merely "a bunch of $200,000 and $300,000 superficial evaluations" that were not conclusive. A valid criticism, perhaps, but these were the same "superficial evaluations" that DARE was prepared to accept for vindication.
A former Los Angeles deputy police chief, Levant added that few children were arrested for looting during the 1992 L.A. riots. Drug-dealing was also down in the schools, he said. "Why? Because the officers, undercover, on campus, are talking to kids about where they get drugs on campus. They're getting the DARE message from high school kids. So does DARE work? You're darned right it does."
Levant's remarks about "officers, undercover, on campus" reflect the original justification used by Gates: Get police into the schools to arrest drug dealers. While it may serve the laudable goal of keeping drugs out of the schoolyard, covert evidence-gathering police work is not one of the stated objectives of DARE.
These comments also typify DARE America's response to criticism. A 1993 Gallup poll of recent DARE graduates is frequently cited by Levant to demonstrate the program's worth, as is a survey of enthusiastic school administrators. But surveys and anecdotes are far different from rigorous scientific evaluation. If these same policemen obtained evidence of a crime, would they want professional technicians to analyze it or would they ask Gallup to quiz the public?
Project SMART researcher Bill Hansen was surprised by DARE's attitude toward researchers in San Diego. "It created a firestorm. Before that, they had never talked to a scientist; they didn't consider discussing the curriculum relevant to what they were doing."
After San Diego, DARE America created a nine-member "Scientific Advisory Board" for the first time. The board has recommended that a "learning lab" be created for testing of the curriculum, but DARE America has not taken their advice.
A new curriculum was first mentioned at the conference, where Hansen and others learned that DARE was planning the first major changes in 10 years. To Hansen, this announcement presented an amusing contradiction: "They basically said at San Diego, 'Our program doesn't have a problem—and don't worry, we're fixing it.'"
The new version of DARE hit the schools in the fall of 1994. The program now includes lessons on gang violence and added emphasis is given to the evils of tobacco.
Perhaps uncoincidentally, the new emphasis on violence and cigarettes also matches new criteria for funding. Violence is a key word in the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, and similar wording can be found in the federal crime bill. States such as California and Massachusetts also have hefty set-asides for anti-tobacco programs, funded by cigarette taxes. The new, improved description of DARE seems almost custom-designed for these new requirements.
Also, says author Ruth Rich, "the new curriculum is 70 percent more interactive than the old. Now there's no place [in the program] where we don't have the child involved."
This change appears to be a positive one. "Interactive" means the child is an active participant, as opposed to quietly listening to a lecture by the DARE instructor. Although all researchers shown the transcript of the "national survey" question faulted the merits of the lesson, they all approved of the way DARE had the children discuss it in small groups.
Despite the revamped curriculum, controversy ensued as DARE America tried to influence The American Journal of Public Health and NIJ released the good news-only flyer. Spokespersons from NIJ insist that DARE America did not influence their decision to tone down the negative aspects of the research, claiming instead that their independent reviewers had recommended that approach. Who were these reviewers, and how "independent" were they? NIJ declines to reveal their identities. "It's always been our policy to keep the names private, so there won't be pressure," says a NIJ spokeswoman. "We feel strongly about the independence of our evaluators."
But DARE America readily supplies the name of one of the reviewers: William DeJong. The same man whose early, positive critique was so pivotal in rooting DARE in our schools.
Says DeJong, "RTI should have said, 'Here's what we did. It's the best we can do with [our analysis], but not too much should be made of this because there's a new curriculum.' They should have kept it in perspective."
Now a lecturer at Harvard, DeJong says he hoped "RTI would back away from its strong anti-DARE conclusion." DeJong particularly objects to comparing DARE to programs that showed better results but were university-based and required intensive training or a difficult-to-sustain level of resources. "It's like comparing a nurtured hothouse flower to a national program."
DeJong's comment brings to mind a fundamental complaint made by critics: DARE is fast becoming a government-sanctioned monopoly. DARE is now in 8,000 communities and more than 50 percent of our schools. Six million children will receive DARE instruction this year, and another 19 million will have classroom visits from their local DARE officer. DARE has grown like the kudzu vine, blanketing the country and smothering competing "hothouse" drug-prevention projects. For instance, both Andy Johnson and Bill Hansen have developed drug-education programs since the days of Project SMART, but compared to the enormous numbers of kids receiving DARE, these are little more than humble science-fair projects.
And without research, we won't know what—if anything—will prevent kids from abusing drugs. This is the dismal news about drug education: All programs are qualified failures, providing only small gains that soon disappear. For all the tinkering over the years, Project SMART has achieved only modest reductions in drug abuse, primarily by postponing the age at which a child begins to experiment with cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs.
Asked if the new version of DARE was tested before it was introduced into classrooms nationwide, DARE America spokeswoman Roberta Silverman says there were pilot tests, but "we only did a limited evaluation of the new curriculum—just a checks-and-balances kind of thing about the pilot testing."
The new DARE curriculum might be better than the old. Although highly unlikely, it is also possible that it could be worse, more likely to produce a boomerang effect. Without evaluations, we don't know. Are there at least plans to put the new program under a microscope? "We don't have any research lined up, but we're seeking government funding to do a longitudinal study," says Silverman.
Even if started today, a five-year longitudinal study would be completed in the year 2000, just as the children of the first DARE graduates will be introduced to their DARE officer in kindergarten. By 2000, DARE will likely be in all our schools, and all those "hothouse" programs will have become academic footnotes. And doubtless all of the parents, teachers, administrators, and police departments will still embrace the painless, easy solutions that DARE offers, happy that at least they're doing something positive to stop the scourge of drug abuse by children.
Jeff Elliott is a freelance journalist who writes most frequently about science, environmental issues, and technology.