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Study of Calif. Anti-Drug Education Programs Stirs Debate

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A dispute between the California Department of Education and a researcher it hired has drawn new attention to the political and educational difficulties of teaching children to stay away from drugs.

The controversy centers on an evaluation of the state's anti-drug-abuse education programs, commissioned by the education department, that questions their effectiveness.

Joel H. Brown, a senior scientist with the Bethesda, Md.-based Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, says the department has withheld from the public the results of his study of the state's drug-, alcohol-, and tobacco-education programs, known as date.

An official with the department denies that charge, countering that the agency largely agrees with the study's recommendations. The research was meant for internal, not public, use, said Jana Kay Slater, a research and evaluation consultant with the department.

She added that the study by Mr. Brown and four colleagues is now outdated. The date programs have been phased out and replaced with more comprehensive anti-drug programs that incorporate suggestions by Mr. Brown and others, Ms. Slater said.

The disagreement, made public after Mr. Brown presented the research at a California drug-policy conference last month, has attracted wide media attention for such a small study, including an article in the Los Angeles Times.

The study, "In Their Own Voices: Students and Educators Evaluate California School-Based Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education Programs," is based on research conducted in 1992 and 1993. It was commissioned as a supplement to a larger, multiyear evaluation of school anti-drug programs mandated by the California legislature and conducted by the Southwest Regional Laboratory.

Mr. Brown's study, which looked at the effectiveness of such in-school programs as the popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or dare, includes data from focus-group interviews with nearly 250 students statewide. Students said they were turned off by what they viewed as a judgmental approach to anti-drug education.

"The data strongly suggest," the study says, "that many student substance-use decisions are either neutrally and/or negatively influenced by their school-based drug education."

'We Can't Do That'

Mr. Brown and the education department also part ways over the wisdom of giving students an anti-drug message that goes beyond the strict "no use" stand currently taught. In the study, Mr. Brown advocates acknowledging that some teenagers use drugs and emphasizing ways to reduce the dangers associated with drug use.

Based on the focus-group interviews, his study found that teenagers believed an anti-drug program was doomed to fail if it preached that the only correct decision was not to use drugs at all.

"Without in any way sanctioning substance use," Mr. Brown and his co-researchers recommend, "it is prudent to shift toward a harm-reduction approach meant to deal realistically and credibly with specific issues associated with substance use."

But, Ms. Slater said last week, such an approach is unrealistic.

"The notion that teenagers want to hear something other than 'You shouldn't be using an illegal substance'--we can't do that," she said. "The best approach that we can provide is that which is consistent with the law."

Although it may be what some teenagers want, the responsible-use message can be a hard sell with the public, added Joel Moskowitz, the associate director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It's very difficult to do that in the current social and political climates around this country," he said. "Most parents won't tolerate that going on in the classroom, and probably rightfully so."

The debate over whether programs such as dare work and the validity of evaluations showing they do not echoes one that arose last year after the American Journal of Public Health published a part of a federally financed study critical of dare, the nation's most widely used school anti-drug-abuse program. Dare officials said the study was flawed because the student sample groups were too small and it looked at out-of-date curricula. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

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