Truth or D.A.R.E.

The Dubious Drug-Education Program Takes New York

One student pops question number six: Why is it important for you to be drug-free? "Drugs make you lazy," Adorno explains. "You want to relax. You don't want to do your homework. You just want to play video games."

After a few minutes, Adorno admits that he used to smoke weed. The sixth-graders slide their chairs closer and begin peppering Adorno with their own questions. "When you used drugs, did people still play with you?" "Did your parents ever find out?" "Where in your house did you hide the drugs?" "Did you have a girlfriend?"

Adorno answers every query and then delivers DARE's zero-tolerance message. "It's fun in the beginning," he says. "But then it catches up with you. It's hard to get out. You destroy your life by drinking, by smoking even cigarettes."

In DARE's worldview, Marlboro Light cigarettes, Bacardi rum, and a drag from a joint are all equally dangerous. For that matter, so is snorting a few lines of cocaine. DARE's student workbook features an eighth-grade alcoholic named Robert on page seven, Wendy the pot-smoking eighth-grader on the next page, and by page 10 a ninth-grader named Laura is trying to score some cocaine. After reading these tales, students are supposed to list what they learned about each drug.

This zero-tolerance, just-say-no approach has attracted plenty of critics. "It really is irresponsible to place all drugs in the same category," says Marsha Rosenbaum, who heads the West Coast office of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy reform organization. "What I don't want kids to hear is that all drugs— and any amount you do— will be the road to devastation. Once kids get to an age where they're experimenting . . . they know that is not true, so they throw away the entire prevention message. It isn't really education. It's indoctrination."

The DARE curriculum condemns not only tobacco and drugs, but also graffiti and tattoos. One section of the DARE workbook describes sticky situations kids might confront, and it tells them to choose the best "way to say no." These scenarios include Pete's friend urging him to scrawl on the wall of a park bathroom, and Jana wandering into a party packed with dangerously decorated strangers. "In a corner of the room they . . . noticed that all of the boys and many of the girls had tattoos," the workbook states, ominously. "There was even someone getting a tattoo."

Glenn Levant, DARE's cofounder and president, insists it makes perfect sense to include graffiti and tattoos in a drug prevention curriculum. "What we're endeavoring to do is to keep kids from getting involved in that type of activity because it can lead to a dangerous situation," says Levant, a former deputy chief with the Los Angeles Police Department. "You could be involved in graffiti, and there are cases reported from time to time when a property owner gets a shotgun and tries to shoot someone involved in that type of thing. . . . It's a social peer pressure that really leads to most of the trouble."

Back in the classroom, several students spend more time squeezing Daren the lion, a foot-high stuffed animal dressed in a DARE T-shirt, than they do studying their workbooks. The children play tug-of-war with Daren, poke him with a pencil, and shake him so hard his mane stands straight up. "I'm almost embarrassed to bring him," Officer Carla says. "But when I leave him in my office, it's like 'Where's Daren? Why didn't you bring him?' "

At the end of a recent DARE class, Eleen Ahmed, 12, is particularly enthusiastic. "It's great," she says. "They teach you not to use drugs, and not to get into fights, and it's fun to hug that doll Daren."

DARE may be fun, but does it work? Leonard Golubchick, the principal of P.S. 20, insists the program is a success. "The bottom line is that it creates relationships between children, students, and parents that you rarely find anywhere," says Golubchick, whose school hosted the city's first DARE. "My opinion is that the national data does not tell the story of the great effects on children."

But a growing pile of evidence suggests that DARE's impact is short-lived. Dennis P. Rosenbaum, a onetime DARE supporter who heads the criminal justice department at the University of Illinois in Chicago, published one of the most recent studies. Funded by the Illinois State Police, Rosenbaum tracked 1800 kids at 31 schools over six years. He found that all of DARE's effects— including instilling negative attitudes toward drugs, positive attitudes about cops— had worn off after four years.

Such findings anger DARE fans. "If you take German for 17 weeks, you're not going to speak German," says Brogan, DARE's New York fundraiser and spokesperson. "The critics say the effect dissipates over the years. No shit, Sherlock. Is that supposed to be surprising?" (DARE officials say the solution to this problem is not less DARE but more of it, and they urge cities to teach DARE in middle and high school.)

Another of Rosenbaum's findings was even more alarming. He discovered that "suburban students who participated in DARE reported significantly higher rates of drug use . . . than suburban students who did not participate in the program." DARE's president Levant dismisses this explosive finding as "not statistically significant." Also, Levant points out that DARE has changed its curriculum nine times since 1983, which he claims raises doubts about the accuracy of such critical studies.

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