By Marie Rohde, Journal Sentinel staff
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 22 Jun 1998

Schools committee concludes anti-drug-abuse program is ineffective

The Shorewood School District has all but abandoned DARE, the police-taught anti-drug program used in 78% of the state's schools, after a study

concluded that it might be worse than not having any anti-drug effort. "It was kind of like discovering that the emperor had no clothes," said Cecilia Hillard, a member of a Shorewood committee that studied the issue and a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin who has done extensive research on the effects of drug abuse.

"The data were so strong that either DARE has no effect, or that in suburban communities like Shorewood it could be worse than having no program at all."

The Shorewood committee, consisting of teachers, staff and parents, has recommended that DARE, which is given to students in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades, be replaced with Life Skills, a program published by Princeton Press, for the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The middle school years are the core age group for any anti-drug program.

A minor component of DARE would continue to be taught by police to third-graders in three sessions. The committee is considering what materials will be used in other grade levels, but DARE materials are not likely candidates.

The committee rejected DARE, an acronym for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, saying it has been shown to be ineffective and "the materials for intermediate school are simplistic to the point of being insulting to our students." They also criticized the materials as dull and the emphasis on criminal justice consequences as too narrow.

Shorewood's action on the DARE program is unusual locally but not unique.

Cedarburg has dropped all but a small portion of DARE; Wauwatosa has established a committee to look at its effectiveness; Cudahy has a less extensive program taught by police and, in Whitefish Bay, it is "on life support."

"We were asked to cut it from 17 to 12 weeks because of academic demands," Whitefish Bay Police Chief Gary Mikulec said. "It cannot be pared down any more and still be considered a DARE program."

According to a consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction, 78% of the state's more than 400 school districts have DARE programs, and only a handful have abandoned it.

In Waukesha County, the program is overwhelmingly accepted and supported. It continues to thrive in the county's public and parochial schools and neither Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher nor Menomonee Falls Police Officer Richard Schwabenlander, president of the Waukesha County DARE Officers Association, has heard of any efforts to replace or scale back the program.

"My biggest complaint has always been that people expect way too much out of the DARE program," Bucher said. "When it doesn't solve all adolescent drug and alcohol problems, they declare it a failure. It's just not the silver bullet and it is not meant to be."

The program was developed in 1983 by former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and the public school district there.

For nearly a decade, the program has been by far the nation's most popular anti-drug effort, the primary means of trying to prevent children from becoming involved with drugs, alcohol, tobacco and gangs.

But it has had its critics, both conservative and liberal, and many communities -- notably Seattle, Oakland, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio -- have opted to use other drug education programs. Those communities also questioned whether DARE was the most effective program.

James A. Holstein, a sociology professor at Marquette University and a Shorewood committee member, brought together the major research on drug abuse prevention programs for inclusion in a report to school officials.

"There are no published reports in peer-reviewed, scientific journals that find DARE to have generalized positive effects on student drug, alcohol and tobacco use," he said in his report to the Shorewood School Board.

Several studies found that it has had no effect on general drug use and is less effective than other programs that are available. The only literature of DARE's effectiveness came from DARE-produced literature, "but there is reason to be skeptical since the pamphlet does not report technical information," Holstein said.

Perhaps the most damning study was done over a period of several years by the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Not only were there no long-term positive behavioral effects found but "the study also shows that suburban students in communities like Shorewood appear to exhibit a 'boomerang' effect. That is, students exposed to DARE appear to be more likely to be involved with drugs than students not exposed to DARE," Holstein said.

Holstein's report did not include statistics from the Chicago study, but in looking at Shorewood drug surveys, he drew the same conclusion about the "boomerang" effect.

A self-reporting survey of drug, alcohol and tobacco use by Shorewood high school students was done in 1992. Those students had not been through the DARE program. Holstein compared the results of that study to the results of a 1995 survey of high school students, who would have been DARE graduates. He found a higher incidence of alcohol, drug and tobacco use in the students surveyed in 1995, a finding not inconsistent with the University of Illinois study.

For example, 90% of the Shorewood seniors surveyed in 1995 said they had tried marijuana and 23% said they used it more than 40 times a year. Nearly 8% of the seniors and 7% of the juniors said they felt they were "hooked" on drugs or alcohol, all significantly higher than those surveyed in 1992.

If the bulk of the research has panned DARE, it has still continued to be the program of choice nationally. Holstein quotes Richard R. Clayton, a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky who has studied the program, to explain this apparent contradiction:

DARE is the program of choice "because it makes all important groups (parents, teachers, administrators, police, politicians) 'feel good.' "

The Shorewood committee members said that having uniformed police officers in the classroom created a rapport beneficial to police as well as to the rest of the community. But the curriculum was a problem.

The committee began meeting last August and its members had considerable expertise in the field. The membership included Holstein, the Marquette University sociologist; Hillard, a researcher on the effects of drug abuse; a child psychiatrist, a psychologist, a social worker and the coordinator of Shorewood Responds, a community program that deals with the use of alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse by minors.

They decided to look at the curriculum for the program in the same way they would look at a curriculum for math, English or anything else taught in the district.

"From then on we were looking at it as scientists," said Hillard. "But we are also parents and we were looking at what would be best for our kids."

DARE was one of five programs assessed. It was also the only one not endorsed by the National Council on Drug Abuse as an effective program.

Of the 16 criteria the committee used to evaluate the programs, DARE fared better than the others in only one category -- the inclusion of community and parents. Overall, it got the lowest grade of the programs examined.

DARE supporters complain that because of its prominence, DARE has been put under the microscope in a way that other programs have not. Could Life Skills just be the untested program du jour, one that will soon be deemed ineffective?

Hillard says that may be true of some of the more than 100 programs available, but Life Skills has been studied more than any program other than DARE.

Life Skills approaches a broader range of behaviors and decision-making situations. DARE, she said, emphasizes the negative consequences of decision-making, largely from a criminal justice viewpoint. Life Skills emphasizes all the possible choices and possible consequences, with legal ramifications viewed as only a part of that, she said.

Still, there is a place for police involvement in the schools, according to Shorewood school authorities.

"There is a role there for them and we hope they will participate," said school Superintendent Jack Linehan. "But this is a wonderful example of local control, of a community deciding what is best for its schools and its students."

Shorewood Police Chief Robert Surdyk said his department has found that the DARE officer's participation in the program not only helped deliver the anti-drug message but also enhanced the relationship between officers and the students.

"We have a liaison officer in the high school but he doesn't get a lot of walk-ins who just want to say 'hi' to Officer Friendly," Surdyk said. "There are a lot of kids who come up to the DARE officer just to talk, years after they've finished the program."