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Bill Newman, Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.), 9 Apr 1998
Publicly criticize DARE - the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program? Until recently, anyway, you'd do better to condemn mom, apple pie and Betsy Ross on the Fourth of July.
Former Police Chief Daryl Gates created the program in Los Angeles in 1983. In 1986 Northampton became the first Massachusetts municipality to adopt it. Since then, more than 80 percent of America's schools - nearly 90 percent in Massachusetts - have adopted DARE.
Many people love DARE. Public school administrators love it because it gives them an anti-drug program for free; Politicians love it because it presents great photo ops that show them in action in the war on drugs; Police departments love it because it allows them to develop positive relationships with kids and gives them great p.r.; Some parents love it because it makes them feel that their school system is aggressively fighting drugs.
And a lot of kids initially love DARE, too. The fifth or sixth graders who take the 17-hour course, and received introductory lessons in earlier grades, are impressed with the concern and dedication of their DARE officer. They also like the paraphernalia - the DARE TO KEEP KIDS OFF DRUGS sweatshirts, pencils, and the ubiquitous bumper stickers. But DARE has a problem. It doesn't work.
In 1991, a U.S. Justice Department study determined that kids who had gone through a DARE program used drugs as often as kids who had not. A 1993 Government Accounting Office report criticized bureaucrats for restricting drug education funding to programs that hewed the "Just Say No" line. And a 1998 U.S. Department of Education analysis of over 10,000 public school students found that other programs had better outcomes than DARE. More than 15 university and government studies have concluded that DARE doesn't reduce drug use or abuse. The most recent one, conducted by the University of Illinois and published this year, is perhaps the most disturbing. It determined that kids in the suburbs who participated in DARE "had significantly higher levels of drug use" than those who didn't. This phenomenon reflects what critics of DARE call "the boomerang effect" - that is, DARE puts some kids at risk by increasing their interest in drugs. The number of teen-agers in America using drugs has risen dramatically - from 1.1 million in 1992 to 2.4 million in 1995, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Locally, the story is the same. A 1995 survey of students in Northampton, Easthampton and Belchertown found that 80 percent of our 15-18-year-olds had used alcohol within the previous 12 months. More than 50 percent had used marijuana. And most alarming, almost 30 percent had used other illicit drugs, including barbiturates, cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.
Experts offer a number of explanations for DARE's failure. An effective drug education program is, to begin with, difficult to devise. Some youths don't trust information from the police. And there's little reason to believe that a 17-hour course in the last year of elementary school will have any significant effect.
There's another problem. DARE dumps all drugs - it defines drugs as "anything but food that affects your body and mind" - into the same condemned category. As local attorney Richard Evans, a DARE critic, explains, "Some kids who discover that DARE's lessons don't square with their own experience reject everything the program tried to teach. And that's tragic," Evans adds. "Heroin and crack kill." But efficacy is not a criterion for continued government funding. DARE has become a government-sanctioned monopoly.
The Drug-Free School and Communities Act mandates that a hefty percentage of federal drug education money be spent on programs taught by uniformed police officers in public schools. In Massachusetts, DARE became entitled to $20 million a year from the state's cigarette tax by adding an anti-smoking message. "It hurts me to sit here and tell you that DARE does not work," said Dennis Rosenbaum, in a recent TV interview. Rosenbaum is head of the University of Illinois Criminal Justice Department and author of the comprehensive 1997 study. "But," he added, "it's time for us to go back to the drawing board and figure out how it can be improved or (in) what better ways we can better spend our money..."
Fortunately, other models appear promising. Santa Barbara recently instituted a program called "Fighting Back," which uses trained professionals and peer counseling to work with kids who appear at risk. Pilot programs that use rehabilitated former abusers as counselors have had good results. Even Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety, Kathleen M. O'Toole, a DARE supporter, announced last year that she would consider proposals for alternatives.
DARE's supporters want kids to make informed and intelligent choices. They want to make sure that kids don't mess up their lives with drugs. And DARE critics want exactly the same thing.
Northampton demonstrated leadership in 1986 when it instituted DARE. Communities in Hampshire County once again should act innovatively and join cities such as Seattle and Oakland which have dropped DARE, and develop a workable alternative.
As the Boston Herald editorialized, "The same old methods (of drug prevention and education) - and that includes DARE - aren't working. We know that. We know that more kids are experimenting with drugs and alcohol than before. We owe it to all kids to try another way."
Bill Newman, a Northampton lawyer, writes a monthly column.