Truth or D.A.R.E.

The Dubious Drug-Education Program Takes New York

Part of what makes DARE so popular is that participants get lots of freebies. There are fluorescent yellow pens with the DARE logo, tiny Daren dolls, bumper stickers, graduation certificates, DARE banners for school auditoriums, DARE rulers, pennants, Daren coloring books, and T-shirts for all DARE graduates.

Marsha Rosenbaum of the Lindesmith Center worries that sophisticated kids will find these DARE items corny and eventually begin to mock DARE's no-tolerance teaching. "What happens is that the culture takes these messages and twists them around," Rosenbaum says, "which is what happened with the 'This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs' commercials. And now there's a whole T-shirt line that's a spoof."

DARE's just-say-no mantra and all its logo-bearing toys have also come under attack from academics. Richard Clayton, director of the Center for Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky, conducted a five-year, 31-school study that, once again, found DARE has no lasting impact. "It is sad to say, but an overwhelming majority of people in the United States have a rather naive view of . . . how to solve social problems such as drug use and abuse by adolescents," Clayton cowrote in a 1996 book on drug prevention. "Drug use is not a simple phenomenon. It will not be solved by simple slogans and bumper stickers and T-shirts and a bunch of people believing DARE is 'the' answer to drug abuse in America."

The NYPD captain who oversees the city's DARE officers shrugs off such criticisms. "We'll never be able to measure how many kids do and don't get involved with drugs," says Serra. "But whatever we are teaching them, it's better than giving them nothing."

This better-than-nothing argument is popular among DARE boosters. But there are programs that have proven more effective than DARE. The best known is Life Skills Training, which was created by Gilbert J. Botvin, a professor of both psychiatry and public health at Cornell University Medical College. This program targets middle-school students and stretches its classes over three years— longer than DARE's 17-week core curriculum. A division of the U.S. Department of Justice recently pledged $4.9 million to teach Life Skills Training at 70 sites across the country, while the National Institute of Drug Abuse plans to spend $5 million over five years to study its impact.

"This has got to be scaring the hell out of [DARE]," says Michael Roona, an experienced researcher who is now a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University studying drug prevention programs. "DARE America is like any other multimillion-dollar corporation— they're very concerned about competition in the marketplace. They were the IBM of drug-prevention programs for a long time, and they don't want to go the same way as IBM, when suddenly PCs transformed computing in America and they weren't there."

So while DARE's Levant publicly insists that DARE works, behind the scenes he is scrambling to bolster it. Mounting skepticism— and prodding from Congress— has led DARE to solicit advice from its fiercest critics. DARE leaders have met twice in recent months with Dennis Rosenbaum, Richard Clayton, and other drug-prevention researchers who have exposed DARE's failings. According to Clayton, the first meeting was "blunt and bloody."

But by the next meeting, held in New York last October, the researchers and DARE officials had smoothed out their differences, and together drafted a plan to conduct a long-term study testing other drug-prevention curriculums. Herbert D. Kleber, the Columbia University psychiatry professor who chairs DARE's scientific advisory board, says, "DARE has agreed to abide by the results of the research." The project will last at least three years.

"We're very willing to change," says Levant, DARE's president. "If someone's got a better mousetrap, we'll use it."

DARE supporters boast that their program is cheap. "The program costs a buck a year per kid," Levant says. But this dollar covers only the price of supplies, like workbooks and T-shirts. DARE America spends $1.5 million annually on supplies for New York City, while the NYPD covers the bulk of the program's costs. The NYPD's payroll includes $8.5 million a year in salaries and benefits for the city's DARE officers.

DARE proponents insist the program is inexpensive because police departments often redeploy officers rather than hiring new ones. To launch its program, the NYPD trained cops in its Youth Division to become DARE officers. "A critic would say the cops cost $10 million a year, and that money could be better spent somewhere else," says Brogan of DARE. "But the officers are already there."

Not every police department accepts this rationale, however. In 1987, Rochester became the first city in New York State to adopt DARE, and its DARE budget eventually climbed to almost $1.2 million. But last year, Rochester dumped DARE. "We, as a police department, could not justify being able to put in 30 or 40 officers just for this," says Officer Carlos Garcia, spokesperson for the Rochester police department. "We chose to move away from DARE because we needed more officers on the street."

The recent uproar following the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from West Africa, raises questions about what role, if any, cops should have in the city's classrooms. "It's hard to face kids when a tough situation like that hits the papers," says Officer Carla. "Kids will come right out and ask why they shot this guy 41 times. I tell them, 'Listen, I can't explain why they shot this man 41 times, but don't pass judgment on all cops.' I told them it's sad for both sides— it's sad for the man's family and it's sad for the families of the cops."

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