Truth or D.A.R.E.?

Despite studies showing that the substance-abuse prevention program doesn't work, it continues to get $1.3 billion in yearly funding.

"All right, class," says Deputy Aldo Lopex, "What time is it?

Two-dozen squirmy third-graders perk up in their seats. "D.A.R.E. class time," they chirp in unison, in a cheerful room at Craycroft Elementary School on Tucson's southside.

But Lopex, a buoyant 25-year-old D.A.R.E. instructor for the Pima County Sheriff's Department, looks around the room with a mock frown. "I'm really disappointed," he says. "I know we can do better than that. OK, what time is it?"

"D.A.R.E. CLASS TIME!" the third graders holler in a bone-rattling burst, and the lesson is underway.

Today, the deputy has taped magazine ads to the blackboard, featuring images of bulbous-lipped models and vain young hunks with cigarettes slouching from their lips. Now he moves from table to table, handing out colorful D.A.R.E. workbooks. Inside are happy cartoon kids of all shades, who narrate methods for dodging bad peer influences, and trumpet short chapters titled "Tobacco Situations" or the "Marijuana Work Sheet." The latter includes fill-in-the-blank questions such as "Marijuana is ____ in the United States," or "Marijuana affects your ______ and _______."

Annually, the Pima County Sheriff's Department spends around $350,000 for a team of deputies to conduct Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., at 39 local schools in the Amphitheater and Sunnyside school districts. Among D.A.R.E.'s many fans are Hans Schot, principal of Craycroft Elementary, a Sunnyside school. While acknowledging the doubts haunting D.A.R.E. since its debut 21 years ago in a cacophony of sizzling eggs and fry pans ("This is your brain on drugs ..."), Schot says the program has many positives.

"One of the biggest advantages of having D.A.R.E. in the school is frequent contact with the Sheriff's Department. Deputies get a real connection with the students." As a result, "students aren't always seeing law enforcement as a negative thing. And they're getting a chance to have positive interactions with a strong role model."

But others claim that substituting police officers for trained educators is exactly why studies repeatedly show D.A.R.E. to be a failure.

"There's an inherent flaw in whole idea of police officers coming into a classroom, and I don't know how you can overcome that," says Dr. Kris Bosworth, an education professor at the UA and a nationally recognized expert on drug awareness education. "I've seen officers doing a terrific job in uniform, and others who don't wear a uniform but still come off as, 'I'm this tough cop; you've got to listen to me.'"

And unless officers are in the classroom often enough to really bond with students, lessons learned in D.A.R.E. often don't stick, Bosworth says.

Regardless of such criticism, D.A.R.E. remains firmly attached to the nation's anti-drug psyche. Fostered by former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates in 1983, the program is now used in 80 percent of school districts nationwide. About 26 million American children--and another 10 million overseas--are exposed to the program's upbeat messages geared around saying no to drug use. In 1986, the program came to Arizona; today, more than 200 police officers across the state are certified to teach D.A.R.E. classes.

Nationally, D.A.R.E. is estimated to cost around $1.3 billion each year. Nearly half of that funding can come from the federal government, under a variety of anti-drug programs. But what is D.A.R.E. actually achieving for all that money? Not much, according to the studies, including one conducted by the University of Kentucky that surveyed students 10 years after they underwent D.A.R.E. training. The survey found that respondents were just as likely to use drugs as those who'd never attended D.A.R.E. classes. And in 2001, the Arizona Office of the Auditor General issued a report calling D.A.R.E.'s long-term effectiveness "virtually nonexistent."

This cavalcade of criticism--combined with tightening government budgets--has taken a toll on D.A.R.E, as a growing number of schools and law-enforcement agencies are just saying no to the program. During the past decade, districts in Salt Lake City, Austin, Seattle and Minneapolis have dropped D.A.R.E. In July 2002, even the LAPD--D.A.R.E.'s progenitor--cut its D.A.R.E. staff by two-thirds. "I don't think anybody can point to any studies and say that D.A.R.E. is preventing young kids from either violence or drugs," Police Commission President Rick Caruso told reporters.

When Salt Lake City Mayor Ross Anderson gutted the program, he didn't mince words. "I think your organization has been an absolute fraud on the people of this country," Anderson told D.A.R.E. officials. "For you to continue taking precious drug-prevention dollars when we have such a serious and, in some instances, growing addiction problem is unconscionable."

And last year, even swashbuckling Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced that his department was cutting the program after 13 years. "The public loves the D.A.RE program," Arpaio told reporters. "But it's not working."

WHILE D.A.R.E. IS LOUSY AT fighting drugs, it remains popular for several reasons. First, the program is funded through law-enforcement agencies, generally at no cost to schools. Second, harried teachers get a break when D.A.R.E. officers temporarily take over their classes. And third, it instills positive values, says Cathy Eiting, executive director of Curriculum, Instruction and Staff Development in the Amphitheater School District.

"It's a controversial program," she says, "but there is a lot of support for D.A.R.E. Parents support it. While I can't say with any degree of certainty that it has an effect on drug use, I've seen it having a positive effect on kids. It contributes to student morale, and teaches kids things we want them to learn about good behavior and values."

Ironically, the very qualities that educators such as Eiting laud may be on the way out, as the program revamps itself amidst a rapidly growing number of anti-drug programs, all competing for the classroom.

For its part, the Tucson Unified School District uses a variety of programs, under a super-structure called Tucson Links. "Different programs are being implemented in different schools," says Kay Aldridge, the district's Links coordinator. "What we're trying to do under No Child Left Behind is move towards program that research supports as effective."

That isn't the case with D.A.R.E., she says. "Most of our schools are in the city limits. Therefore, the Tucson Police Department is our law-enforcement agency, and they made the decision years ago that D.A.R.E. would not be used by their school resource officers." That decision was based on research that doesn't support DA.R.E.'s effectiveness.

Instead, "Our Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant from the federal government focuses on implementing evidence-based prevention programs in 55 schools across the greater Tucson community," she says. "In TUSD, we have 20 schools right now that are implementing programs that research shows are effective in reducing substance abuse and violence."

TUSD's approach is modeled on a book called Protective Schools, which was generated within the UA Education Department. That model directly ties substance-abuse prevention to academic achievement. "We know that kids who are successful and socially connected to school are less likely to abuse substances," Aldridge says. "So you work on creating a school environment that fosters academic achievement, that fosters pro-social bonding, that allows kids to have meaningful tasks and jobs--to feel connected. That in itself reduces the risk factors for substance abuse."

Regardless of criticism, D.A.R.E. retains the strong political and corporate ties that have kept it in place for decades. And officials with the parent organization, D.A.R.E. America, have never hesitated to bite back. Indeed, spokesman Ralph Lochridge claims that "there has never been a national evaluation of what we are doing." Instead, studies critical of D.A.R.E. are linked to organizations promoting their own anti-drug education programs, he says. "There are questions about almost all the research."

Still, the negative studies have put the D.A.R.E. officials on the defensive, and threaten to unravel their dense funding network. This crisis was highlighted under revised U.S. Department of Education guidelines that restrict funds to school programs with demonstrable results. Due to these changes, D.A.R.E. did what any institution does to survive: It gave itself a facelift. In early 2001--and armed with $13.7 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation--the D.A.R.E. curricula underwent a thorough revamping. The legendary "Just Say No" diatribes were replaced with role-playing and group activities guided by officers. "There are no more long periods of lecturing the kids," says Lochridge. "Now the program is much more interactive, and the content is much different."

Among those asked for input on the new design were the UA's Bosworth. She says D.A.R.E. officials "went back to drawing board." While results "are not out yet" on the effectiveness of the new program, "it has responded to critics, and it's more state of the art."

In other words, it comes closer the criteria she uses to gauge school anti-drug programs: Are they sustained over time? Are they embedded in the school community? Are they age appropriate? ("You don't need to teach about cocaine to second-graders," she says.) And are they taught by educators rather than cops?

Not surprisingly, that last hurdle looms large for a program drawing its very essence from the law-enforcement culture, says Earl Wysong, an Indiana State University sociologist who has extensively studied D.A.R.E.

"There was never any doubt in our research that D.A.R.E. was popular among parents, some community members and certainly among police officers," he says. "But we were asked to evaluate its effectiveness, and we found that, in terms of preventing drug use among teenagers, there was really no effect. I think the popularity stems from the perception that we're trying to do something to help kids stay off drugs, and it's highly visible work."

Wysong calls D.A.R.E. "an 800-pound gorilla" that drains funds away from other anti-drug programs. It's also quite trenchant, "operating from the premise that there's no possibility of claiming success unless there is no use of drugs," he says. "The idea of responsible use or harm reduction isn't part of the logic of programs like D.A.R.E. Zero tolerance is a federal policy, and D.A.R.E. has consequently mirrored that idea. It's very much an extension of Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' concept."

BACK AT CRAYCROFT Elementary, Deputy Lopex is leading the class onward through the workbook, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Today's focus section is called, "What do YOU think?" The children hear a hypothetical, drug-related dilemma, and then guess how the cartoon kids in the story will respond.

"Who'd like to read?" Lopex asks, and then points to a tiny, pony-tailed girl with her hand held high. "OK, you, Maya," he says. Slowly, stumbling, she recites the story about a sixth-grader named Joe who is being pressured by his buddy to smoke. "He told Joe that all middle school kids smoke cigarettes," Maya reads. "Joe wondered if it was really true."

Maya's fellow students are hushed, awaiting the answer to that pregnant question.