Truth or D.A.R.E.
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 increased drug 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 Republic in 1997 and Rolling Stone in 1998. Now Glass admits that many of the embarrassing allegations in his stories were false. In February, DARE slapped Rolling Stone with 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 Stone story 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.
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.
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."
During such tension-filled times, DARE can perform a valuable public-relations service. "DARE officers give a different face of law enforcement," says Levant, DARE's president. "A child's first experience with a uniformed police officer is in a friendly, helpful way. . . . You have to have programs like DARE in place so police aren't viewed as an occupying army."
From the beginning, improving police-community relations was part of the impetus for bringing DARE to New York City. "That seemed to me to be one of the major benefits of the program," says Robert Strang, the former DEA agent who chaired the mayor's advisory committee on antidrug initiatives. "Forget about the drug education. . . . We saw a relationship that could be built between the students and the police officers. There's no other vehicle for that that we're aware of. . . . For critics who say it's good PR for the police department, they're absolutely right and we should do more of it."
This is precisely what DARE plans to do. Hoping to double the program's size, the NYPD recently applied for a federal grant to add 100 more DARE officers and expand into the city's middle schools. But DARE doesn't intend to stop there. Sounding like a proud father, DARE's president reveals that over the next four years DARE will implement its full curriculum kindergarten through 12th grade in all of New York City's public schools.
Research assistance: Hillary Chute
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