Perspectives Magazine
April - June, 1998

The Editorial Page

Drug Education is Needed, But This Isn't It

The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program has been one of the most popular drug education programs of all time. Led by a local police officer in elementary and middle school, the program's curriculum centers on teaching children the evils of illicit drug use. But the most recent research confirms an alarming trend which past journalists have also noted... DARE largely fails at its main task -- stopping kids from trying drugs.

In fact, the most comprehensive research to date on DARE studied the effect of the program on 1,800 Illinois children from fifth grade through high school. Dennis Rosenbaum, head of the criminal justice department at the University of Illinois, led the study. The conclusions of the researchers? DARE provides no beneficial effect on student drug use. The six-year study not only didn't find any differences between students who were in the DARE program and those who did not have DARE education, but the DARE education made have an adverse effect on kids' drug activity in the suburbs. The study found children living in the suburbs who were exposed to DARE training actually had a significantly higher level of drug use than kids who didn't have DARE education.

Taxpayers money, to the tune of $220 million per year, goes to fund DARE programs. Should so much of taxpayers dollars go toward an ineffectual program which may actually increase drug usage among children in some communities? We don't think so.

Reason magazine actually reported on the troubles with the DARE program back in March, 1995. (See also the letters to the editor followup.) Parents, taxpayers, schools, and the police have all been silent on these facts for far too long. Good money is being thrown after bad because change is difficult, especially for established programs which have a large "feel-good" factor associated with them. Nobody wants to be blamed as the person responsible for removing DARE from their school, for fear that even a bad program is better than none at all.

Yet this most recent research is also the most troubling. If DARE isn't just a bad program with very little empirical support (or certainly no strong empirical support, as it should have if it's going to be an integral part of thousands of communities' drug education efforts), but a program which may contribute to more kids trying drugs, then action must be taken sooner rather than later. DARE spokespeople, quoted in the press from various sources, suggest that this study was using the "old curriculum," and hence the "new and improved" DARE curriculum is immune to these research findings. In fact, the "new and improved" DARE curriculum is largely unchanged from the old curriculum.

This kind of reasoning from the DARE organization also begs the question, however. Shouldn't extensive research into a program's effectiveness (or lack thereof) be conducted before that program is unleashed onto millions of school children? Shouldn't basic standards exist to ensure that taxpayers money is being well-spent on curriculum that works ahead of time, rather than finding out years later?

This type of reasoning also fails to address the ongoing problems within the DARE curriculum itself, as noted in the Reason article way back in 1995. DARE shouldn't seek to hide behind marketing mantras, but instead should embrace the empirical research and look at ways of making substantial needed changes in their program to ensure it is effective (or at least doesn't cause any harm!).

Drug abuse in America is an ongoing, serious problem which often begins in childhood. Children often turn to substances such as marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol under peer pressure or to deal with the extreme emotional roller coaster that is commonplace in the teenage years. Programs must be designed and shown to be effective which help kids understand that there are hundreds of other ways to fit in with your friends and to cope with your emotions. This education doesn't have to take place in a school classroom, however. Families and parents could take back this responsibility and ensure their children learn about the dangers of drug use. Too many times, parents don't know how to approach such topics with their children. The alternative, however, is that children not taught in some way will be bound to learn the hard way -- through real-life experience.

DARE should be improved to the point where there is an overwhelming amount of research which confirms it is a useful, efficient, and effective drug education program. If the research can't show this -- as it has yet to do so -- schools, parents, and researchers need to look at alternatives to DARE which may be more effective in getting the needed information about drugs to kids.