War on Drugs

DARE Didn't Make Kids 'Say No' to Drugs. It Normalized Police in Schools.

DARE to Say No details the history of an anti-drug campaign that left an indelible mark on America.


There's no such thing as a universal millennial experience, but DARE comes close.

Starting in 1983, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program sent police officers into classrooms to teach fifth- and sixth-graders about the dangers of drugs and the need, as Nancy Reagan famously put it, to "just say no." DARE embraced an abstinence-only model in which any use of alcohol or drugs qualified as abuse and the only acceptable tactic was to abstain. Upon completing the 17-week program, students received a certificate and a T-shirt.

At its height, over 75 percent of American schools participated in the program, costing taxpayers as much as $750 million per year. Historian Max Felker-Kantor revisits DARE and its legacy in DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools, a new history of the program.

As a DARE graduate myself who wore the T-shirt long after it was fashionable (look, I liked the austere black-and-red color scheme), I vaguely recall presentations given by someone from the local police department. On one occasion, he told a student to act drunk and pretend to offer the class beer, while the rest of us screamed at her in reply. Another time, our officer-instructor went on a tangent about how "girls are just tougher these days," before presumably tying it back to why it was imperative that we 10- and 11-year-olds resist any entreaties to shoot up heroin in our rural Georgia schoolyard. I recently learned to my horror that my wife won a poetry contest in her DARE program in Alaska—a poem that she then, mortified, had to read aloud during the DARE graduation ceremony.

In hindsight, DARE is primarily remembered as a joke, a bunch of cops acting out hokey anti-drug skits. By 1994, a decade after the program's founding, studies clearly indicated that the DARE curriculum had little to no effect on rates of youth drug use. By the 2010s, it had become a popular source of irony and parody: When then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the program's effectiveness in 2017, DARE graduates noted on social media how they still smoke pot in their black-and-red shirts.

But while DARE didn't "work" in the sense of keeping many kids from using drugs, Felker-Kantor argues the program was wildly successful at normalizing the presence of police, and the war on drugs, in people's everyday lives.

DARE was the brainchild of Daryl Gates, the same police chief who gave us SWAT teams. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had spent a decade sending undercover officers into schools, arresting thousands of dealers—the majority of them minors—but drug use among students actually increased. "After years of dealer arrests did little to reduce the demand for drugs, police leadership all but admitted the impossibility of curtailing drug use through enforcement alone," Felker-Kantor writes. With DARE, Gates' department would target demand instead of supply. "But instead of relinquishing the task to another agency, LAPD officials expanded the remit of police to include working directly with kids, creating an educational program that required the presence of officers in schools as teachers."

This was DARE's differentiating factor, and its fundamental flaw. The undercover program may have been overly aggressive and ineffectual, but it also clearly delineated the roles of officer and teacher; DARE blurred those lines. DARE officers were explicitly trained to act as educators, not as law enforcement, and they were billed to students as "trusted confidants." But they didn't check their badges at the schoolhouse door; they showed up in uniform (sometimes with their service weapon, though that was against the rules), and officials like Gates defined their role within a law enforcement framework.

DARE to Say No posits that improving the public's perception of police was at least as important to DARE's mission as keeping kids off drugs. Police departments had to carefully consider whom among their ranks could participate, as "a qualified DARE officer was the linchpin not only for reducing drug use but also for transforming public perceptions of the police and reshaping the relationship between the police and communities."

Much of the program was therefore driven by politics rather than any proven methods of reducing drug use. When crack dominated headlines, the DARE curriculum adapted its narrative, preaching about the perils of "crack babies" in the "inner cities" even though, as Felker-Kantor writes, "many kids and teenagers, according to the LAPD's own data, had experimented with alcohol or marijuana, not crack cocaine." In the 1990s, as the public worried about gang violence and "superpredators," DARE changed its iconic "DARE To Keep Kids Off Drugs" slogan to the clunkier "DARE To Resist Drugs and Violence."

This disconnect between the program's stated goals and its actions was most apparent in lower-income communities of color, which tended to have more antagonistic relationships with the police. DARE provided a blueprint to present cops as role models to kids while still aggressively prosecuting the drug war against their parents.

And prosecute parents they did: DARE's history is full of stories in which students told an officer about a parent's drug use only to find that parent in handcuffs later. In one egregious example, a guidance counselor asked 11-year-old Crystal Grendell if her parents used drugs; assured, as she later recalled, that "nothing would happen," Crystal admitted that her parents smoked marijuana. Days later, Felker-Kantor writes, "three DARE officers interrogated Crystal about her parents' drug habits and asked her to report back on the number of marijuana plants in her home." One officer told her that her parents would be arrested unless she cooperated and that she shouldn't tell her parents about the interrogation since "often parents beat their children after the children talk to police." When Crystal cooperated, Felker-Kantor recounts, police "raided her home, arrested her parents, and took Crystal and her younger sister to a distant relative's house because the police had failed to find arrangements for the girls prior to the raid."

Grendell's family later successfully sued the department—with a court finding the officers' "coercive" actions "shocking to the conscience and unworthy of constitutional protection"—but the program's officials were undeterred. "In such environments, there are usually no morals, values or training for the child," one DARE administrator is quoted as saying. "My personal opinion is that an arrest is the best thing that could ever happen to that parent."

In the 1990s, groups like Parents Against DARE sprung up to oppose the curriculum. "Although skeptical of DARE's effectiveness," Felker-Kantor writes, "Parents Against DARE was more concerned with the loss of parental control and the state's potential surveillance of the family via their children-as-informants." DARE, which enjoyed broad public support in its first decade, gradually lost its luster, and schools began dropping the program in the mid-'90s.

The class of congressional Republicans elected in 1994 talked about cutting social programs, and DARE was one possible target. But by this point, DARE was too ingrained in American culture to kill outright, and most politicians were too afraid of looking "soft" on child drug abuse to try. The National Institute of Justice lists 2009 as the program's end date, but it actually still exists, albeit on a smaller scale. The officer-instructor is still the central figure. This, in fact, has been the program's lasting legacy: As schools began to adopt resource officers after the 1999 Columbine school shooting, the DARE cop proved the perfect template. As DARE officers gave way to permanent school resource officers, or SROs, the integration between schools and police was complete.

Felker-Kantor sometimes gets lost on ideological tangents, blaming "neoliberalism" for both DARE and the drug war. But his book mostly steers clear of broad political pronouncements. Instead, it provides a comprehensive history of a program whose glory days may be behind it but that left an indelible mark on America—and not just as a target of mockery.

DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools, by Max Felker-Kantor, The University of North Carolina Press, 288 pages, $27.95