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DARE Scare: Turning Children Into Informants?

WP 1/29/94 9:00 PM

By James Bovard

DRUG ABUSE Resistance Education (DARE) is currently being taught by police officers to more than 5 million children in more than 250,000 classrooms each year. The brainchild of former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, the DARE program is directed mostly at fifth and sixth graders, though its activities can span kindergarten through 12th grade. Gates made headlines in 1989 with his suggestion that drug users be taken out and shot, and his brand of philosophical moderation permeates the DARE approach to drug abuse.

On its face, DARE seems unobjectionable. It seeks to maximize youngsters' hostility to drugs by teaching them perils of drugs and reinforcing the message with DARE frisbees, DARE wristwatches and an official DARE song ("Dare to keep a kid off dope/Dare to give a kid some hope"). Students are also able to win or purchase DARE pencils, erasers, workbooks and certificates of achievement.

But along with the anti-drug paraphernalia may come a more ominous effect: children informing on their drug-using parents.

The program was created partly as a result of Gates's frustrations with police sting operations in the schools. Until the late 1980s, Los Angeles police officers routinely went undercover as high school students in order to implore real students to buy drugs from them. In 1987, the American Civil Liberties Union complained, "When other adults try to get young people involved with drugs, we call it contributing to the delinquency of a minor. When the LAPD does it, we call it the school-buy program."

Finding young people who would buy drugs proved quite easy. Unfortunately, it had little effect on drug use by students. As Gates told the Los Angeles Times last September, "We kept buying more and more. It was appalling, depressing. I finally said: `This is crazy. We've got to do something.' "

The result was DARE. Winning the trust of youngsters is an essential feature of DARE. Policemen sit and talk with children during lunch hour and play games with them during recess. The federal Bureau of Justice Assistance noted in a 1988 report that DARE "students have an opportunity to become acquainted with the (police) officer as a trusted friend who is interested in their happiness and welfare. Students occasionally tell the officer about problems such as abuse, neglect, alcoholic parents, or relatives who use drugs."

One of the first lessons found in DARE teaching materials stresses the "Three R's": "Recognize, Resist and Report." The official DARE Officer's Guide for Grades K-4 contains a worksheet that instructs children to "Circle the names of the people you could tell if . . . a friend finds some pills"; the "Police" are listed along with "Mother or Father," "Teacher"or "Friend." The next exercise instructs children to check boxes for whom they should inform if they "are asked to keep a secret" - the police are again listed as an option.

Roberta Silverman, a spokeswoman for national DARE headquarters in Los Angeles, rejects the idea that DARE teaches or encourages informing. "When students begin the DARE program they are specifically advised not talk about their parents or friends. We are very clear that when DARE instructors are in the classroom, they are there as teachers, not law enforcement officers."

Silverman says that the DARE Officer's Guide for Grades K-4 is not part of the DARE core curriculum. "It lays the groundwork for what the officers do later. It's more like generic safety instruction, teaching kids about personal safety. The part about keeping a secret is to get kids talking about molestation. It has nothing to do with drugs or with getting them to turn their parents in." Silverman also says that "any time a child makes a disclosure (of parental drug use) to an officer, the DARE officer would be required like any other teacher to report that to the proper authorities or agencies."

Not surprisingly, children sometimes confide the names of people they suspect are illegally using drugs. A mother and father in Caroline County, Md., were jailed for 30 days after their daughter informed a police DARE instructor that her parents had marijuana plants in their home, according to a story in The Washington Post in January 1993. The Wall Street Journal reported in 1992 that "In two recent cases in Boston, children who had tipped police stepped out of their homes carrying DARE diplomas as police arrived to arrest their parents." In 1991, 10-year-old Joaquin Herrera of Englewood, Colo., phoned 911, announced, "I'm a DARE kid" and summoned police to his house to discover a couple of ounces of marijuana hidden in a bookshelf, according to the Rocky Mountain News. The boy sat outside his parents' home in a police patrol car while the police searched the home and arrested the parents. The policeman assigned to the boy's school commended the boy's action.

Police and DARE officials keep no statistics on how many drug busts result from the program. And DARE officials say that reports of kids informing on their parents cannot fairly be attributed to DARE.

"I think to focus on these few incidents is to do a disservice to people who are at the forefront of prevention efforts in this country," DARE's Silverman said. "There are 25 million kids who have been exposed to DARE and a handful of cases of informing that may or may not be related to DARE at all."

Nine-year-old Darrin Davis of Douglasville, Ga., called 911 after he found a small amount of speed hidden in his parent's bedroom because, as he told the Dallas Morning News, "At school, they told us that if we ever see drugs, call 911 because people who use drugs need help . . . . I thought the police would come get the drugs and tell them that drugs are wrong. They never said they would arrest them. . . . But in court, I heard them tell the judge that I wanted my mom and dad arrested. That is a lie. I did not tell them that." The arrest wrecked his parents' lives, said the Dallas newspaper; both parents lost their jobs, a bank threatened to foreclose on their homes and his father was kept in jail for three months.

Silverman says that the details of the case prove how murky such cases are. While Darrin Davis had been in a DARE program, she says that he did not report his parents to the DARE officer and that there was evidence that the parents were also involved in drug trafficking, thus putting their child at risk.

"It's making a mountain out of a molehill," she says.

Whatever DARE's effect on families, its record at discouraging drug use is the subject of some controversy. A study financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse on the effect of DARE on Kentucky students between 1987 and 1992 reported "no statistically significant differences between experimental groups and control groups in the percentage of new users of . . . cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, alcohol and marijuana."

More recently, the National Institute of Justice hired Research Triangle Institute (RTI) to survey and evaluate all the published research on DARE, and RTI's preliminary conclusions were largely negative.

The RTI's evaluation concluded that only eight published studies of DARE's effectiveness were statistically valid. Susan Ennett, one of the lead researchers on the RTI project, concluded that these eight studies found that DARE's effects on drug use by children ranged from "limited to nonexistent." DARE says that other experts have criticized the methodology of the RTI study and notes that it has not yet completed the peer review process. DARE claims that of 23 studies of DARE, 20 found the program effective in shaping anti-drug attitudes and behavior.

At a March 1993 conference about drug education at the University of California at San Diego, social science researchers agreed that after 10 years of operation there is little evidence that DARE actually reduces drug use among the young. William Hanson, one of the early advisers to DARE and currently a professor at Wake Forest University, said, "I think the program should be entirely scrapped and redeveloped anew."

Many Americans, numbed by politicians' harsh rhetoric regarding drug use, may feel that policemen should be able to use any means available to detect drug users. Many DARE instructors have the best of intentions. But is that an excuse for government programs that endanger the bonds between children and parents?

James Bovard is the author of the forthcoming book, "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty" (St. Martin's Press). Copyright 1994 The Washington Post


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