Researchers Question Value of DARE's Scare Tactics
California Educator / APRIL 1997
by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Today's youngsters have had more
drug education than any other group in the history of this
country. Record amounts of money are being spent on drug
education. Yet increasing numbers of children are just saying
"yes" instead of"no".
Why are we spending more and getting less?
According to some researchers the reason may be DARE, a well-
known drug-prevention school program that stands for Drug Abuse
Resistance Education. The new drug study is sending shockwaves
throughout the academic community.
The study's researchers say DARE and other Drug, Alcohol
and Tobacco Education (DATE) programs simply aren't working, and
that it's time for school districts to re-evaluate their use.
Started 14 years ago by the Los Angeles Police Department, DARE
is the nation's leading anti-drug curriculum. Police officers
usually conduct the programs in classrooms, engaging
children in role playing and 'just-say-no' skills.
DARE is the only drug education program specifically sanctioned
for funding under the federal Drug-Free Schools and
Communities Act, and fits the requirement of advocating a no-use
policy. This year, according to the researchers. the program
will receive $750 million, with approximately $600 million coming
from federal, state and local governments.
In a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice to
evaluate the effectiveness of DARE and DATE programs, the
following conclusions were reached:
- DARE's limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior
contrasts with the program's popularity and prevalence.
- DARE could be taking the place of other, more beneficial
drug-use curricula that adolescents could be receiving.
- DARE's core-curriculum effect on drug use is slight, and
except for tobacco, is not statistically significant.
As one of the few major studies to interview students as well
as educators, the study further concluded:
- Students overwhelmingly reject the "no-use" or zero
tolerance messages as not credible.
- Seven out of 10 students said they felt "neutral"
or"negative" toward DATE and DARE educators.
- Four out of 10 said the programs had no impact "at all" on
their substance use decisions.
- Only one in 10 students said the programs affected them a
- Programs intended to assist "at-risk" students failed to
provide needed services and often resulted in detention,
suspension and expulsion.
Despite these provocative findings in the study, the Department
of Justice has not published the DARE report it commissioned.
Similarly, the California Department of Education has not
published the DATE study, citing "methodological flaws" even
though data collection and analysis were performed with the
departments oversight and cooperation. The studies were reviewed
and found to be scientifically sound by 35 independent experts,
and the findings have been accepted for publication by leading
Criticism of DARE and DATE has allegedly been suppressed in other
venues, according to a recent article published in The
New Republic, titled "Don't You DARE!" Strong criticism has been
leveled at the program's DARE box, where students are encouraged
to put anonymous notes, which may include questions or
accusations against those accused of using drugs. Some
reports suggest that students in DARE programs have turned in
their parents to law-enforcement authorities.
Dr Joel Brown, director of the Berkeley-based Educational
Research Consultants and an author of the study. says that the
No.1 reason the program doesn't work is its "no-use message"
regarding drugs and alcohol.
Brown, who says he's in no way advocating adolescent substance
abuse, claims that the students are old enough to understand the
difference between substance use and substance abuse. Because
they find the program inaccurate, they reject the message of
DARE, says Brown, who helped to interview 240 youths in 40 focus
groups across the state, as well as 400 educators and
"They know that one beer is not as bad as 10, and they see
their parents have a glass of wine with dinner without ill
effects. "Their educational reality doesn't match their everyday
reality; and the result is cognitive dissonance, where students
come to believe educators lack credibility".
Educators, says Brown, should be orienting kids toward
preventing the riskiest behavior with substance abuse rather than
dwelling on a no-use policy; One way to get that message across
would be to state, "We do not want you to drink. In that
statement, we are not advocating substance use. But if you do
drink, please don't drink and drive.
Because educators advocating no-use policies may use scare
tactics and don't consider experimentation as an option,
lifesaving information may not be emphasized. "We don't want our
children to die because they made an uneducated decision and
didn't have accurate information," says Brown. "We don't want
kids to use drugs,but the reality is that it might happen. We
want to prevent horrible things from happening - such as them
getting AIDS from intravenous drug use - by giving them honest
and accurate information"
Dr. Marianne D'Emidio-Caston,co-director of the DATE evaluation,
says students want the whole story, but they also want to be able
to trust adults. "Students want a confidential setting to talk
about their experiences, without fear of being suspended or
expelled. With a no-tolerance policy, the ones who are having the
most difficulty with substance abuse are being exited from the
system. They can't come forward and talk about it, or get help.
They start feeling disassociated from the school, are labeled
'bad kids' and feel that all the school wants to do is get them
The researcher, who also makes it clear that she does not
advocate drug use, says students turn to each other because they
can't trust adults. "They start to take responsibility for their
friends with problems, and act as counselors and offer support.
The problem with that is that students are not trained, nor
mature enough, to act in this capacity.
Margaret Brown, chair of CTAs School Management Committee and a
member of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, agrees with
the conclusions of the controversial study. "My observation is
that students want information that is realistic to the world
they live in," says Brown, who teaches in a continuation high
school. "Drugs are a part of the world they live in, in many
cases. They don't want scare tactics. They want information about
how drugs affect the body. The kids say, "Give me a real message,
and don't talk to me like I'm awful if I've tried it."
In an age where children of Baby Boomers realize their parents'
generation invented drug experimentation and the president claims
not to have inhaled marijuana, honesty may be the toughest
challenge yet facing those teaching drug education.
But the stakes are high.
"When drug education politics starts to overtake science,
children are the losers:' says Brown. "It should be of deep
concern to those of us who care about the well-being of our
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