Drug Use & DARE

Truth or DARE?

Janet Orsi

Is Bill Clinton really to blame for the sharp rise in teen drug use? Or is the nation’s leading anti-drug program failing our children?

By Bruce Robinson

MARY KADRI RECALLS driving to San Francisco one day with her 14-year-old niece when the National Public Radio program they were listening to broadcast a segment on heroin addiction. “Heroin addicts were talking about how the thrills were very short-lived and then the need was so purely physically without any attendant entertainment or fun value, and the pain of quitting was so intense, excruciating pain in the fingertips,” Kadri says, “and she commented to me, ‘What are they talking about?’

“I said, ‘They’re talking about heroin and how bad it is.’

“She said, ‘I never heard any of this before.’

“‘Haven’t you learned it in DARE?'”

“‘No, they never tell you anything really about specific drugs. They just tell you they’re very bad and to stay away from them. And to just say no.'”

Back at her Petaluma home, Kadri and her niece spent several hours with the family encyclopedia, looking up drug names and slang terms, reading up on “medical facts, not just propaganda,” Kadri explains. “I know that afterward she felt she’d really learned a lot and it was going to be very helpful to her. She said, ‘I don’t know why DARE doesn’t tell you any of this. I think it would make a much bigger impact if they did.’ “

DARE–Drug Abuse Resistance Education–is the dominant drug education program in America’s schools today. But even as DARE proliferates in Sonoma County public schools, parents and law enforcement officials across the nation are beginning to question the efficacy of this popular anti-drug program–and some are even starting to turn their backs on it.

Founded by former Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates in 1983, DARE is now used in nearly three-quarters of the nation’s public school systems, and has been circulated in all 50 states and abroad. By design, it is taught exclusively by uniformed police officers, such as Rohnert Park police officer Rich Mathis, who has led the DARE program in the Rohnert Park­Cotati School District for the past three years.

A large, avuncular man who came to police work late in his career, Mathis feels that he serves a dual role in the classroom, acting as both a role model and a source of more authentic information. “The officer knows, supposedly, more than the teacher about what’s going on on the outside,” he explains.

DARE is now taught to all fifth graders in the Rohnert Park­
Cotati School District, a total of 14 one-hour classes on nine campuses, as well as at one local Lutheran private school, with Mathis supervising six other patrol officers who share in the instructional effort. The 16-week DARE curriculum is incorporated into the students’ health studies, and the entire program is provided to the cash-strapped school district at minimal cost.

“Basically, it doesn’t cost anything but my salary,” says Mathis, and that cost is shared between the budgets of the school district and the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department. Donations from local Rotary and 20-30 Clubs, the Rohnert Park Police Officers Association, and other groups pay for the workbooks, other materials used in the classrooms, and T-shirts.

DARE is also taught in public schools in Petaluma and Sonoma, and is being introduced this fall at two campuses in Windsor. In addition, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department is preparing to launch a DARE program in the Geyserville area.

“DARE is exciting because we go in once a week and talk to the class about real-life issues,” says Sheriff’s Deputy John Blenker, who took the 80-hour teaching training in Los Angeles last summer, before starting the program in Windsor in September. “It’s not like the traditional ways that I was introduced to when I was in school.

“Years ago they used to say if you do [drugs], your brain will be fried right away, but I don’t do that. I tell them prolonged use of anything is harmful, and that’s what the curriculum is based on.” Blenker cites other differences between the 1996 version of DARE and older drug education efforts. “One of the lessons is based on dealing with consequences, dealing with the police. [Also] what peer pressure is and how it works, the fight-or-flight syndrome,” he elaborates, “stuff that I can’t recall getting when I was in high school.”

BUT KHARLA VEZZETTI has other memories of her experiences as a DARE student at a junior high in Southern California. A Santa Rosa resident who has been active in the campaign for medical use of marijuana, Vezzetti says that when DARE’s absolutist stance cannot be reconciled with the students’ own experiences, the anti-drug teachings are invalidated. “By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was having the teachers and movies on one side telling me the horrors of drugs, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s not true because I know this boy over here, and he smokes pot, and that didn’t happen to him.’

“Whom are you going to believe at 14 or 15–people telling you things, or what you see?

The classes laid on heavy-handed scare tactics meant to reinforce the basic “just say no” message, Vezzetti says. “They showed us this movie, and the one story that stuck in my mind was this woman who was high on PCP and had fried her baby in a frying pan! It must have really upset me because I remember joking with my friends about it. That’s how we handled something that atrocious at the age of 12 or 13, we made jokes.

“You can’t scare teenagers into submission,” she says firmly. “They’re too smart for that.”

“Research proves [that scare tactics] really don’t work,” agrees Hillary Abramson of the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and other Drug Problems. “It’s like drunk driving. You go into the high school and you bring in some kid in a wheelchair who was drunk driving and it’s very shocking. But it doesn’t stop them from getting in a car and drunk driving. That kind of scare stuff, research proves, does not permanently stop the behavior you’re trying to prevent.”

The DARE program designers have learned that lesson, says Mathis. In the current version of the curriculum, which was updated in 1994, “We’re not telling them not to take drugs. We’re telling them what drug abuse can do to the body and to the mind. We let the students decide what the problems are of too much alcohol or becoming addicted to tobacco or marijuana.”

THE CENTRAL FOCUS of DARE is on what are termed “gateway drugs”–alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana–chosen because “they are usually the easiest to obtain by the younger students,” Mathis explains. The curriculum also mentions cocaine and inhalants, but there is scant reference to speed, LSD, crack, downers, heroin, or the dangers of mixing drugs. The program has incorporated a significant anti-gang thread, with a strong emphasis on avoiding violence.

DARE is also supported by a nationwide non-profit corporation, DARE America, which provides standardized training for officers who serve as DARE instructors at five regional training centers from California to North Carolina. In addition to active fundraising, the stated goals of DARE America are to create “a national awareness of the DARE program, encourage the adoption of DARE in all states and in all communities,” and “protect the DARE trademarks from misuse and exploitation.”

This kind of aggressive marketing has made DARE the unquestioned leader in “name brand” recognition among drug education curricula, a status that is continually reinforced by hundreds of logo-bearing goodies–pins, T-shirts, banners, flags, rulers, balloons, bumper stickers, Frisbees, etc.–that are sold to local supporting groups and passed out to the kids in the DARE classrooms. “I have a reward system for the kids who participate in class” using DARE paraphernalia, Deputy Blenker says. “Pretty much everybody gets something.”

But DARE is also very touchy about people who make fun of the program. Mark Hornaday, a retailer of hemp products in Claremont, east of Los Angeles, says he was harassed by his local police department for selling T-shirts emblazoned with the DARE logo that said, “I turned in my parents and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

In March 1995, “someone from trademark management” representing DARE, and accompanied by the police officer who taught the program locally, visited Hornaday’s store, the Hemp Shack. “He told me that I must cease and desist selling the shirts,” Hornaday recalls. They also wanted to take his supply of parody T-shirts and wanted to know where they came from.

When he subsequently continued to sell the shirts, his store was visited again, this time by an undercover police officer sent “to determine if I was still selling those evil T-shirts.” A raid with a search warrant followed on July 19. “They seized five shirts and searched my entire shop from top to bottom.” Hornaday says. “You’d think they were looking for things besides T-shirts, although that’s all there was on their search warrant.”

Hornaday was charged with four counts of selling counterfeit merchandise, a laughable case that was quickly dismissed after his attorney went public with it, threatening an embarrassing countersuit. “Cops have tried to do this before and it has failed. It’s parody and satire and it’s protected under the First Amendment,” he says. “I haven’t heard from DARE in almost a year.”

The wiseacre T-shirts clearly hit a sensitive nerve, and anecdotes abound about youthful DARE enthusiasts who have led authorities to their drug-using parents, friends, or family members. To avoid such situations, “we tell the kids they can’t use names” when discussing others’ behavior. “It’s got to be, ‘someone I know,'” says officer Mathis. Even when a student tells him privately about someone’s illegal drug use, “that’s confidential information. I’m not going to go out and arrest the guy, because it was told to me in confidence.”

But the biggest question facing DARE these days is also the most basic: Does it really work? According to an analysis of multiple tests and studies of the DARE program conducted by the Research Triangle Institute and published in the American Journal of Public Health, the answer is yes, but not all that well. Studies of changes in the patterns of reported drug use by students taking the program “suggest that D.A.R.E.’s core curriculum effect on drug use . . . is slight, and except for tobacco use is not statistically significant,” the authors write. While this may be attributable to “the relatively low frequency of drug use by elementary-school pupils targeted by D.A.R.E.’s core curriculum,” they continue, “there is no evidence that D.A.R.E.’s effects are activated when subjects are older,” a finding that is consistent with other studies of the long-term effects of drug education.

However, their article also concludes that DARE students do benefit in the areas of knowledge about drugs and social skills. “Other D.A.R.E outcomes, such as its impact on community law enforcement relations, also may yield important benefits,” they write.

But the researchers also suggest that the policemen who typically administer the DARE program “may not be as well equipped to lead the curriculum as teachers,” adding that even if they were, “the generally more traditional teaching style used by D.A.R.E. has not been shown to be as effective as an interactive teaching mode.”

Ultimately, the article concludes, “D.A.R.E.’s limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program’s popularity and prevalence. An important implication is that D.A.R.E. could be taking the place of other more beneficial drug curricula that adolescents could be receiving.”

Predictably, this conclusion is not welcomed by the program’s proponents. “D.A.R.E Michigan Answers the Critics,” a rebuttal written by Robert E. Peterson, director of that state’s Office of Drug Control Policy, spends more than half of its 11 pages denouncing “drug-using parents angry that D.A.R.E has made their children too anti-drug!”

In a section headed “The Drug Culture’s Attack on D.A.R.E,” Peterson poses the rhetorical question “If D.A.R.E is so ineffective, one might ask why leaders of pro-pot and pro-drug legalization groups are so intent on destroying the program.” As evidence of this destructive intent, he cites a single critical article in the June 1994 issue of High Times.

Elsewhere, Peterson acknowledges that there are “sincere concerns regarding D.A.R.E. program effectiveness and evaluation that require thoughtful review and response.” After noting that the National Institute of Justice declined to publish the Research Triangle Institute study, Peterson lists a series of methodological criticisms before concluding, “It certainly has serious limitations and there is a potential for various interest groups to use it to promote an anti-D.A.R.E. agenda. The study may also be viewed as providing some interesting insight and opening up a range of issues worthy of further exploration.”

DESPITE SUCH EFFORTS to defuse criticism, the accumulation of questions about the program’s efficacy is beginning to trigger defections from the DARE ranks. The city of Oakland dropped the program two years ago, its officials saying they saw few results for the $750,000 a year that was being spent. Spokane and Seattle have recently made similar decisions. So has Fayetteville, N.C., whose police chief, Ron Hansen, recently told CBS News, “Ever since we changed our philosophy on D.A.R.E., I’ve gotten calls from police chiefs all over the country, saying, ‘I wish there was a way out, because I feel the same way, but it’s a political hot potato.'”

DARE’s defensiveness toward critical examination is often shared by the educational establishment that collaborates in delivering the curriculum. A $100,000 study commissioned by the California Department of Education, which analyzed data from 5,000 students, was quietly shelved after it concluded that drug education in state schools is not working.

According to the findings of Dr. Joel Brown of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, more than 40 percent of the students said their classes had no effect on their own substance use, and many found the basic “just don’t do it” premise at odds with their own experience. Most damning, Brown’s study found that zero-tolerance school policies tend to drive substance-abusing students out of schools, rather than providing any means for them to address their problems.

The report, “In Their Own Voices: Students and Educators Evaluate California School-Based Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education (DATE) Programs,” does not examine DARE exclusively, but summarizes the results of the estimated $1.6 billion that the state has spent on substance-abuse education over the past five years. DARE has been the dominant component in that effort.

“The kids who have a true abuse problem are the first ones kicked out of the school system,” Brown says. “And what [the report] shows in the students’ own voices is that they understand that paradox. These results show that a majority of these middle- and high-school students are aware of what a drug problem is; many question why the school is not helping them or their friends when they have such a problem.”

Had Brown’s research been conducted a decade earlier, Kharla Vezzetti could have contributed similar input. “I remember just wanting desperately for my teacher to distinguish between use and drug abuse,” she recalls. “It set up a very destructive climate of guilt and fear for teenagers, where if they feel they may have a problem with a substance, they really don’t know whom they can go to. They’re taught that if they smoke pot, they’re really bad persons. We weren’t really given the skills to look at ourselves.”

Marsha Cameron, a special education teacher with the Sonoma County Office of Education, believes that critical self-examination is the key to developing drug programs that can truly be effective. “We have to start by being very honest with ourselves: What drugs do we use? Why do we use them?” she says. “We absolutely have to tell our kids the truth. And before we can tell kids the truth, we have to know the truth ourselves.”

The criminalization of substance abuse tends to perpetuate the problem, Cameron says, especially with young people. “Once they start using the drugs, they’re criminals. It puts them in a place where they can’t discuss them openly and honestly. And I see much more of a problem with alcohol than any other drug.”

The passage this month of Proposition 215–which legalizes the medical use of marijuana–may be an opening for a less hysterical attitude toward pot, Cameron hopes, which in turn may allow drug education in general to concentrate more on education and less on shaping behaviors.

“I’m not advocating for kids to use drugs,” she concludes. “What I want is for them to understand what drugs do and why people use them. Drugs are not the problem, they’re merely symptoms.”

From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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