Metropolis: Wednedday, June 13, 2002
City’s No Longer Taking the DARE

It was a feel-good program that didn’t talk about feeling good.


When I was in the seventh grade in 1971, my elementary school brought one of the local police officers to our classroom to lecture us about the evils of illegal drugs. Granted, we didn’t really know what illegal drugs were at this point. Drugs were something that hippies did, and given that we didn’t see any hippies at Holy Cross School, we didn’t pay much attention to this cop standing before us. But then he said something that made me and my friends sit up and take notice.

“There was a young high school student,” the cop intoned breathlessly, “who took LSD and woke up a few days later in California.”

I couldn’t believe what I just heard. Take a pill and wind up in California. I’d never been to California, but I’d seen it on tv. I knew there were beaches and surfers and Disneyland. Swimming pools, movie stars. So when the cop told me that taking drugs might cause me to wind up in California, I thought there might be something to what this guy was talking about. Police officer dude, count me in.

It was after that cop came into our classroom that my friends and I first started talking about drugs. The more we talked, and the more we looked around, the fewer reasons we found not to take drugs. The intended effect of the drug education — to curb our desires through scare tactics — had instead piqued our curiosity. That summer, with pot we got from someone’s older brother, five best friends began getting stoned. Most of us would do so for the next 20 years. Over the years, some of us even tried to get to California.

I was reminded of my drug education last week when Fort Worth Police Chief Ralph Mendoza announced that he will be eliminating the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program in the Fort Worth public schools. Mendoza cited the fact that DARE failed to reduce narcotic use among youths. He thought his officers would be better used in finding criminals and putting them in jail, instead of drilling fifth-graders on the evils of marijuana.

The decision by the Fort Worth police is part of a trend that could spell the end of the DARE program as we know it. Numerous studies have shown that DARE has little impact in reducing drug use among those who have taken the program. At the same time, in the post-9-11 world, police departments are facing increased responsibilities while cities are slashing budgets. Los Angeles recently cut its DARE funding in half, and Salt Lake City got rid of the program entirely. Dozens of cities, large and small, have gutted or completely abolished DARE programs in the past few years.

DARE was started in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police, with twin intentions. On the one hand, it was an educational program designed to teach young children how to say “no” in the face of peer pressure to use drugs. On the other hand, DARE was also a police-community relations program, designed to bring police officers into schools, to be seen by parents (who are voters and taxpayers) as real, caring people who do more than write traffic tickets and beat people with billy clubs. Tarrant County District Clerk and Republican operative Tom Wilder recognized the political side of DARE in the early 1990s, when he took an obscure Haltom City DARE coordinator named David Williams and helped get him elected Tarrant County sheriff. Williams had little real law enforcement experience and few ideas on how to run the sheriff’s office, but he was against drugs, and that seemed good enough for voters.

Over the years, 80 percent of school districts in the country bought into the DARE promise. In large school districts, the program cost more than $1 million a year to implement. At a cost of $20-50 per child taking the 17-week course, and the fact that police officers were being taken off the street to coordinate the programs, the expectations that the program might actually work were reasonable. But study after study — including ones by the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education — found that taking the DARE program made no difference in the incidence of drug use later in the child’s life. In Minnesota, a study found that students were more likely to use marijuana in the sixth grade if they had been in the DARE program in the fifth grade. Maybe they told those Minnesota kids the story about waking up in California.

Last week at D. McCrae Elementary, the Fort Worth program — started in 1987 — held one of its last graduations of DARE kids. Many parents and educators bemoaned the loss of DARE, and Fort Worth Police Officer D.W. Frazier, DARE officer and trainer for the past seven years, disputed the findings of the studies. He also vowed he’d be back. “This is God’s work,” Frazier said. “It will always be in my heart while riding bike patrol.”

But within the crowd at McCrae was evidence of the failure of the program. Antonio, a ninth-grader from Polytechnic High School, there to watch a family member graduate, said he took the DARE training when he was in the fifth grade. By the time he reached high school, he was smoking a dime bag every day with his friends and eventually flunked out of school. His parents sent him to boot camp, and Antonio said he is now drug free. He said he still thinks the DARE program is a good thing but admitted that he knew a bunch of kids who were smoking pot in the sixth grade despite attending DARE a year earlier. “I wanted to try a new thing,” Antonio said. “When you are older, you want to experiment and see how things are.”

And, in a nutshell, that was the problem with DARE. The message focused almost entirely on peer pressure and scare tactics. Once teens saw their friends experimenting with drugs without full-blown addiction, researchers found, the kids would throw out all of the DARE lessons. “Once that happens, they feel they have been lied to,” said Donald Lyman, a University of Kentucky researcher who has studied DARE, “and they reject the whole message.”

My daughter took the DARE program last year as a fifth-grader at Luella Merrett Elementary. I knew she had little clue at her age as to what drug abuse was and how it would affect someone’s life. But the things she did pick up bordered on absurdity. In one lesson, she was told by a DARE officer that her first drug experience would likely be at the hands of a gang member at knife-point. I told her it would be more likely be at half-time of a high school football game, with friends and no weapons involved.

There’s been no decision on which replacement program the Fort Worth ISD might adopt. Districts that have already shed DARE generally are using programs that move the drug-resistance education to middle school and high school. The curriculum is being handled by health/science teachers and counselors, with some input from law enforcement.

But if educators are serious about drug abuse prevention, a change in the mindset that the DARE program fostered for 30 years is needed. DARE told students about most of the reasons for drug abuse — peer pressure, low self-esteem, parental abuse — but had a blind spot about the most obvious reason: pleasure. Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at New York University who has studied alcohol and drug education programs, believes that schools must be more honest with students if any of these programs are to work.

“Most adults probably fear that any acknowledgment of pleasure will increase the allure of these activities,” Zimmerman recently wrote. “But students already know the joy of sex, alcohol, and drugs. They know it from film and television; they know it from popular music; they know it, sometimes, from their own experience. What they don’t know — or don’t understand —are the dangers that these pleasures can bring. But we’ll never persuade our children to take heed of the dangers if we continue to lie or dissemble about the pleasures.”

Staff writer Jeff Prince contributed to this story.

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