Facing mounting criticism, the nation’s most popular program to discourage alcohol and drug use by students announced here last week that it plans to change its strategy.
Administrators of the program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education—most commonly known as DARE—said they would overhaul the structure of the program. DARE seeks to curb drug use by children by having police officers come to school to teach about the dangers of drug abuse. DARE officials say their program is used in 80 percent of U.S. school districts.
Dubbing it “The New DARE Program,” organizers say the revamped effort will focus its attention on grades 7 and 9, where research shows students are more likely to be drawn to use drugs, but it will also continue reaching out to the elementary grades. In the past, the program focused mostly on elementary-age students.
Moreover, the new program will use a redesigned curriculum based on proven research strategies, program officials say, and it will use DARE police officers as facilitators rather than instructors, allowing students greater participation.
“This will focus more on middle schools and high schools—there’s a tremendous increase in drug use between the 8th and 10th grades,” said Zili Slobada, the principal investigator for an independent evaluation to be conducted on the new DARE program by the University of Akron’s Institute for Health and Social Policy.
The chief criticism of the current curriculum has been that it does not use content that was proven effective by research.
Officials say the new DARE will try to address that concern with the help of a major foundation. In addition to announcing that it will pour $13.7 million into the revamped DARE, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is financing the five-year follow-up study of the program—by Ms. Slobada. The evaluation will involve about 50,000 students in six metropolitan areas. DARE officials will not completely replace the current curriculum unless Ms. Slobada’s research proves the new approach is more effective.
The Princeton, N.J.-based foundation, which underwrites health-care projects, took on the new project because of DARE’s widespread use in schools, said Nancy J. Kaufman, the foundation’s vice president. And the group is willing to work with DARE until it shows signs of success, she added.
“If this program isn’t as effective, we will go back and start over again,” Ms. Kaufman said. “We must come up with something in this country to help these kids, and we’re going to do it right—as long as it takes.”
Glenn A. Levant, DARE’s founder and president, pledged to work cooperatively with the researchers, no matter what the findings, and he defended the 18-year-old program as having positive short-term results.
Ms. Slobada added that the need for an effective drug-abuse-prevention program is more pressing than ever: About half of all high school seniors say they have experimented with drugs, she said, and new neuroscience research shows that brain damage caused by drug and alcohol use by adolescents is much more serious than previously realized.
Others echoed those concerns. “This problem could get a lot worse,” said Ms. Kaufman, who added that drug, alcohol, and tobacco use among teenagers appears to be rising, and that the population of 15- to 20- year-olds is expected to increase 11 percent in the next decade.
Critics Pan Approach
While DARE proponents insist they will remain in business and have widespread support among local police and communities, the program, which is based in Los Angeles, continues to come under fire from researchers.
Just last week, the National Academy of Sciences released a critical report on the program, following an unfavorable report by the U.S. surgeon general last month.
Nancy Crowell, a staff officer with the NAS who helped write the academy’s report, said a review of research showed that students who completed the DARE program used drugs at the same rates or even slightly higher rates than their peers who had not taken the course.
“This is one of the most evaluated programs of all time, and the findings are consistent that it doesn’t work,” she said. “It looked like a good idea when they did it 10 years ago, but they resisted change for a long time.”
Some school districts have pulled out of the program altogether because it wasn’t producing the results they expected. (“Discontented, Some Districts Shifting Gears on Anti-Drug Programs,” Jan. 20, 1999.)
Beyond that, the Department of Education has prohibited schools from using grants from the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, funded at $644 million this year, for any anti- drug-abuse program that has not proved its effectiveness within two years. That includes DARE.
But supporters hope the new program will eventually prove itself worthy of continued funding.
The new curriculum was pilot-tested in middle schools in two Ohio towns last year and showed early signs of success, according to DARE officials.
Megan Ohls, a 7th grader in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who participated in the pilot program, said she and her classmates were impressed by images of brains that the police officer showed them. The one from a teenager who had used drugs showed mostly dead brain cells. That “really got our attention,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as DARE Anti-Drug Program To Shift Strategy