D.A.R.E. is an acronym that stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Developed by both law enforcement and school officials in 1983, the program was provided to youths as a formal way of introducing drug use information to young people in attempts to lower the rate of substance abuse down the road. Whether or not the program has been successful remains a controversial topic.
Proponents of the program claim youths retain the information learned and carry it onward into their developmental years. Others tout the efficacy of the D.A.R.E. program, citing poor statistics that don’t back up the claims the organization promotes. One such figure stems from a survey conducted by the California Department of Education in which 40 percent of student respondents claimed they weren’t influenced by the program at all, and almost 70 percent cited having neutral to negative feelings about the program leaders
The D.A.R.E. Program 101
The catchy “Just Say No” slogan has served to keep D.A.R.E. recognizable among children and adults alike for more than three decades. However, the promise of those words may not hold up under a microscope. For that reason, many school districts have begun to pull the program from their students’ school-year experience in recent years. As a result, the organization endeavored to draw attention to a new campaign that would pull focus away from drugs and onto character development. The decline of school participation led to a great income deficit, too, which declined from $10 million in revenue in 2002 to just $3.7 million in 2010.
The typical D.A.R.E. program lasts for 17 weeks and includes the following structured lessons
The New D.A.R.E. Program—This One Works
D.A.R.E.’s original curriculum was not shaped by prevention specialists but by police officers and teachers in Los Angeles. They started D.A.R.E. in 1983 to curb the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco among teens and to improve community–police relations. Fueled by word of mouth, the program quickly spread to 75 percent of U.S. schools.
But for over a decade research cast doubt on the program’s benefits. The Department of Justice funded the first national study of D.A.R.E. and the results, made public in 1994, showed only small short-term reductions in participants’ use of tobacco—but not alcohol or marijuana. A 2009 report by Justice referred to 30 subsequent evaluations that also found no significant long-term improvement in teen substance abuse. “Thirty years ago, everyone believed that if you just told students how harmful these substances and behaviors were—they’d stay away from them,” says Frank Pegueros, president and CEO of D.A.R.E. America. “I’ve actually had officers tell me, ‘You mean I was doing it wrong for 15 years?’ Evidently, we were.”
Behavioral scientists started to suggest a different approach as early as 1998, based on research into successful behavior-change techniques. Instead of bombarding students with information in 45-minute lectures, they called for a hands-on program that would build communication and decision-making skills and let children rehearse these tactics via role play. Eventually D.A.R.E. started to search for a new curriculum, and the program’s scientific advisory board selected keepin’ it REAL from over 200 listings on a national registry of evidence-based programs maintained by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Hecht and Miller-Day have authored several of the handful of studies that demonstrated the program’s effectiveness and convinced the D.A.R.E. scientific advisory board to adopt it. The largest one, published by Hecht, Miller-Day and their colleagues in 2003, asked 6,000 students to fill out questionnaires about their use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana at several points over a two-year period. The reports from students who completed keepin’ it REAL indicated that they sampled these substances less than those in a control group, and used a wider variety of strategies to stay sober. Their antidrug attitudes were also more likely to stick over time. A subset of that study with 1,300 students who were already using drugs, showed that the program reduced substance use at a rate that was 72 percent higher than the control group. Steven West, a rehabilitation counselor at Virginia Commonwealth University who once published a meta-analysis showing D.A.R.E. to have negligible effects, is encouraged by these results. “They are going the right route now—it’s based in science,” West says.
Was D.A.R.E. Effective?
Most Americans who are currently in their 20s and 30s spent a significant amount of time in 5th or 6th grade homeroom hanging out with a police officer, conjuring up scenarios in which someone might offer us drugs or alcohol, and brainstorming ways to turn them down.
“Hey, kid, want to smoke some crack behind this tree?” the officer would ask.
“Nah, I’ve got basketball practice,” we students would reply in unison.
Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., was introduced into elementary school classrooms in 1983; though no longer as widespread as it once was, it is still part of the curriculum in many school districts. But does it work? Did we, the alumni of the D.A.R.E. program, end up just saying “no” to drugs?
D.A.R.E. was (and is) completely ineffective in preventing drug use. The numbers demonstrating this started rolling in way back in 1992, when a study conducted at Indiana University showed that graduates of the D.A.R.E. program subsequently had significantly higher rates of hallucinogenic drug use than those not exposed to the program. (Maybe they shouldn’t have told 5th graders that hallucinogens exist.)
Every subsequent study on the effectiveness of D.A.R.E., including a major 10-year investigation by the American Psychological Association, found much the same result. The program doesn’t work, and in fact is counterproductive, leading to higher drug use among high school students who went through it compared to students who did not. Because of those studies, D.A.R.E. lost federal funding in 1998.
The reasons for D.A.R.E.’s failure are summed up by the words of the psychologist William Colson, who in ’98 argued that D.A.R.E. increased drug awareness so that “as they get a little older, [students] become very curious about these drugs they’ve learned about from police officers.”
Despite the fact that all that just saying “no” apparently makes many kids secretly think “yes,” D.A.R.E. was never totally phased out. Throughout the ’90s, national leaders of the program resisted the scientific findings, and in some cases even tried to bribe academic journals not to publish them. Program leaders told the press that strong public support for D.A.R.E. was a better indicator of its success than any hard numbers. They also claim the program improves the relationship between youths and law enforcement.
There’s one thing the D.A.R.E. program definitely did do right: We all got a lot of wear out of those T-shirts. But then again, who knows what psychological impact that graffiti-style red-on-black had.