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Thirty sixth-graders begin to shout as a police officer enters their classroom at P.S. 20 on the Lower East Side. "Good morning, Officer Carla!" they call out to their favorite teacher. Officer Carla is Carla DeBlasio, 35, a one-time transit cop who teaches weekly classes as part of the NYPD's Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, known as DARE. On a recent Wednesday, the officer strides into the classroom clutching DARE's mascot, a fuzzy stuffed lion named Daren.
Officer Carla wears a DARE pin above her police badge and a gun tucked discreetly inside the waistband of her navy blue slacks. But she seems more like a dedicated teacher than a typical cop. Indeed, she knows every student's name, and when she discovered that P.S. 20 did not have a basketball team, she started her own. Such devotion has made Officer Carla a star in the city's DARE program. At first, the students fired the usual questions at her. "Have you ever used your gun?" "Have you ever shot anybody?" But now, near the end of DARE's 17-week curriculum, any anxiety the students may have had about cops, or at least Officer Carla, seems to have dissipated.
Officer Carla begins by recapping last week's lesson on "positive alternatives." "What happens when we hang out with the wrong people?" she yells. Tiny hands shoot into the air as students holler the answers.
"Good," says Officer Carla, flashing a warm smile. Apparently, her students have internalized DARE's message resisting peer pressure and choosing the right friends will keep them away from drugs.
DARE America started in Los Angeles in 1983 with what seemed like a good idea: put cops in fifth-and sixth-grade classes to teach kids about drug abuse. Since then, DARE has become the world's dominant drug prevention program. This $230 million operation conducts courses in all 50 states and in 44 countries, from Sweden and England to Brazil and Costa Rica. Eighty percent of U.S. school districts have DARE. The largest city program is right here in New York, with DARE officers teaching in 271 public elementary schools. By the end of the current school year, the total number of graduates from New York City's DARE program will climb to 210,000.
As DARE America grows, so does criticism of its effectiveness. More than a dozen studies have concluded that DARE has no lasting impact. And one six-year study found increaseddrug use among suburban kids who graduated from DARE. Even more damaging than these little-read reports were a pair of stories penned by Stephen Glass, the prolific young con man who wove fictitious anecdotes into his articles. Glass wrote scathing pieces about DARE for The New Republicin 1997 and Rolling Stonein 1998. Now Glass admits that many of the embarrassing allegations in his stories were false. In February, DARE slapped Rolling Stonewith a $50 million libel suit.
Glass's deceitful journalism has not, however, dispelled the doubts that continue to dog DARE. The list of cities that have dropped DARE either because they cannot afford it or do not believe it works has grown to include Seattle, Oakland, Spokane, Omaha, Austin, Houston, Milwaukee, Fayetteville, and Boulder. Despite DARE's uneven track record, New York City adopted the program in 1996. "I really believe it is effective," says Captain James Serra, who oversees the NYPD's DARE officers. "Any kind of prevention we can give the kids of New York City is a great thing."
For the beleaguered DARE struggling to hold on to its schools and reputation winning over New York City was a major coup. To woo the NYPD, DARE offered an attractive deal. The national organization provides free workbooks to New York City students a perk for which other cities usually pay. When Safir announced that the NYPD would adopt DARE, he mentioned this freebie as a convincing selling point. The price tag for the city's DARE program is $10 million a year, most of which is paid for by the NYPD in the form of salaries for 100 full-time DARE officers.
To further strengthen its relationship with the city, DARE's national office hired a fundraiser just for New York. (DARE programs in other parts of the country raise their own funds.) "It is very important to us to have a successful program in New York City," says Bill Alden, DARE's deputy director and a former agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. "It took us four years to break through and finally see the impact. Whatever it costs it's worth because we're reaching so many kids we couldn't reach before."
New York City's DARE did not get off to a smooth start. In early 1998, DARE's local fundraiser, Ronald J. Brogan, booked the Marriott Marquis and was about to mail invitations to a $1000-a-plate dinner. That's when the Rolling Stonestory appeared. The dinner's honoree pulled out and DARE cancelled the caterer. "Stephen Glass cost me $1 million," says Brogan, also a former DEA agent. "He cost me a year's worth of work. If not for that story, there could be a DARE middle-school program [in New York City] by now."
The 11- and 12-year-old kids in Officer Carla's after-lunch class are riveted. Today's topic is "role models." So a handful of students have moved their chairs into a circle around visitor Steven Adorno, a 22-year-old senior at Hunter College. Each child's DARE workbook is open to a list of 19 suggested questions.