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Back to School: D.A.R.E. is easy and free, but does it really work?

Friday, August 27, 1999

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The biggest drug education prevention program in Pennsylvania schools is backed by $4 million in state funds, specially trained police, a national advertising campaign, presidential proclamations and money from the federal Department of Justice.

But some experts say it's a waste of time and money.

D.A.R.E., or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is the longest-running, most widely used substance-abuse prevention and safety promotion curriculum in the world. It's used in about 75 percent of all school districts nationwide, and in more than half of Pennsylvania's.

Recently, though, a growing number of researchers and studies say the program isn't the most effective prevention curriculum available. In fact, some studies -- including an assessment by the same Pennsylvania commission that funds the state's D.A.R.E. programs -- show D.A.R.E. to be among the least effective.

 
   

This is the sixth article in an eight-part PG series examining a range of educational issues.

Previous articles:

Part I: A shortage of principals.

Part II: Non-Catholic families are finding Catholic schools a blessing

Part III: Ninth grade proves to be a pivotal year for youths

Part IV: Building good character through just a trait a week

Part V: Science classes trade textbooks for a hands-on approach

 
 

School districts around the country -- including Houston; Seattle; Rochester, N.Y.; and Omaha, Neb. -- have ended their association with the program and are trying something else.

Linda Dusenbury, a consultant and psychologist, said D.A.R.E. was unquestionably the best at distributing information about drug abuse prevention.

But, she said, "The question is, does it prevent drug abuse?"

"The answer is, not very well," said Dusenbury, who was the primary researcher for the book, "Making the Grade," a guide to drug-prevention programs.

Yet, D.A.R.E. remains the program of choice in Pennsylvania. Close to a thousand schools across the state this fall are set to teach the program to 300,000 students. The cost of the program, which is conducted by police officers who hold a once-a-week class, is about $10 per student. Because the school districts have to put out very little money, D.A.R.E. is considered ideal by school officials -- a virtually free program that runs itself.

The vast majority of the state's D.A.R.E. classes are taught to only fifth-grade elementary school pupils over a 17-week period, on the premise that it's best to reach kids with prevention education early.

That, critics say, has been the program's flaw. Research studies, most recently one from the University of Kentucky this month, suggest that while the one-shot D.A.R.E. approach can produce initial improvements in students' attitudes and resistance toward drugs, those changes don't last over the long run.

Other research shows that D.A.R.E. and other drug-prevention curricula are more effective only when conducted over a period of years or when coupled with other prevention programs.

Generally, in D.A.R.E. classes, as in most other drug-education/prevention programs, self-esteem and positive peer influence are promoted, the physical and psychological effects of drugs are discussed and drug-resistance skills are taught.

Beginning five years ago, D.A.R.E. modified its curriculum to include middle schools and high schools in its program. Since 1995, 230 middle schools in Pennsylvania have added D.A.R.E. to their drug-prevention curricula. Statewide, however, fewer than a dozen schools offer the senior high component.

Under Pennsylvania Act 211 and beginning with the 1991-92 school year, all school districts were mandated to teach drug education from kindergarten through high school. This is predominantly taught in health classes, not through drug-prevention programs. Private schools are not required to have drug education classes, although many do.

The overarching question is, of course, do classes -- whether through programs such as D.A.R.E. or regular classes -- prevent drug use?

The answer is hard to come by.

Drug use by young people declined from 1997 to 1998, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported this month. But a survey by the Atlanta-based PRIDE organization found teen-age drug use in 1997-98 at its third-highest level in 11 years, and twice as prevalent as at the beginning of the decade.

In Pennsylvania, the 1997 biannual statewide survey of students on alcohol, tobacco and drug use showed drug use among teens was on the rise. Student use of marijuana was twice as high as 1991. The use of depressants and cocaine rose, and regular stimulant use among ninth- and 12th-graders was 7 percent higher than during any previous survey year.

But Tom Corbett, head of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Juvenile Delinquency, said the state was making progress, and that the drug education programs were part of the reason.

"Overall we are much better off than where we were 10 years ago," said Corbett, the former state attorney general. "Do we have farther to go? Obviously. We can always be doing better."

This year the commission will provide $4 million for D.A.R.E. programs in a thousand schools. But the commission's 1997 assessment of the state's D.A.R.E. program found that students who took no prevention program at all had virtually the same patterns of substance use as those taking the D.A.R.E. program.

Not only that, but students who had D.A.R.E. were more likely to have tried marijuana than students who did not have D.A.R.E.

"If we expect that D.A.R.E. in and of itself ... is enough to stop drug usage, we're fooling ourselves," Corbett said. "We need to continue to expose them to D.A.R.E. or other programs."

Corbett is trying to elevate the quality of the state's drug-education programs, particularly D.A.R.E., which receives its funds through appropriations by the Legislature's Drug Education and Law Enforcement Grant Program. The commission also awards funds for more than three dozen delinquency and intervention programs for juveniles with special treatment needs, all of which include drug education.

For D.A.R.E., Corbett hired a full-time consultant -- Dave Caster, a former D.A.R.E. officer and 23-year police veteran -- to help schools improve their drug-prevention programs. An in-state training site for middle school D.A.R.E. officers was established this year; before, officers had to travel out of state for training.

A hundred officers are expected to be trained within a year. The commission hopes to establish a training site for high school D.A.R.E. officers, too.

But some school districts aren't waiting. For the past three years, the West Allegheny School District has provided D.A.R.E. programs for its kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils, and seventh- and 10th-graders.

"If you've gone through our system, then you've gone through D.A.R.E.," said Elaine Fitzgerald, the district's coordinator of pupil services.

She credits D.A.R.E. with a decline in juvenile crime in the North Fayette area.

D.A.R.E. Officer John Bates of the North Fayette Police Department and an officer from Findleyville conduct all of West Allegheny's D.A.R.E. classes. Bates is a recipient of a School Resource Officer grant, which provides him an office at the senior high school. There, in addition to D.A.R.E., he also provides violence prevention education, counseling, mentoring and mediation services.

"We don't do this because there's nothing else to do," said Bates, who has spent nine of his 16-year police career with D.A.R.E. "We do this program for [the students] because we don't want to see them get involved with drugs or violence or alcohol.

"As far as I'm concerned, D.A.R.E. is working. As far as what's out there, this is the best we have available to us."

After the D.A.R.E. officer presents the program in Michele Shields' fifth-grade class at St. Therese of Munhall, she incorporates each of the 17 lessons into her other classes.

"I help to reinforce what the officer presents, and follow up their activities," she said. "We use it as a springboard for other discussions.

"My question is, the children know the answer they should tell you in the classroom. I don't know if outside the classroom they would give you those same answers. Are they still going to use those techniques they've been taught?"

Given the large number of competing programs available, other Pennsylvania schools are seeking ones shown to deliver a more lasting impact than D.A.R.E. This year, 10 school districts near Penn State University, University Park, are participating in a five-year, $1 million National Institute on Drug Abuse study to implement the drug-education program Life Skills Training in their middle schools.

Developed in the late 1970s by Gilbert J. Botvin, a professor of public health and psychiatry at Cornell University and director of its Institute for Prevention Research, Life Skills Training is only for students in middle or junior high schools. It is taught by teachers or health professionals and praised by researchers, who have found that the program has as long as a six-year effect on participants' attitudes toward drugs, enough to last through high school.

Anthony Chiappetta, superintendent of Brentwood School District, says he receives literature constantly about new drug-education programs. The district uses D.A.R.E. in its three elementary schools and at Brentwood Middle School. And Brentwood High School has Teens That Care, a program that trains students to work alongside a D.A.R.E. officer in the elementary schools.

"Quite honestly," Chiappetta said, "it would be difficult at this juncture to replace D.A.R.E. with something similar."

"D.A.R.E. is a political football in any local community," said Dick Clayton, director of the Center for Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky. "It makes parents feel good that there's an officer in the school. Those who are critical of it -- and there aren't many -- don't want to be perceived as being against the police. It's much easier to stick with what you've got."

Mark Greenberg, director of the Prevention Center at Penn State University, said that despite D.A.R.E.'s popularity, it was important that the program be made more effective.

The key, according to Greenberg and others, is to empower students with the social skills and self-control to withstand peer pressure and negotiate conflict.

In her 1997 book "Dynamics in Document Design," Karen Schriver explored how teen-agers reacted to the words and pictures of anti-drug brochures. She discovered that teens interpret not only the message but the messenger.

Schriver said her study found that, with teen-agers, "a 'Big Daddy' kind of approach was counterproductive because the students didn't have a voice.

"To be longer lasting, students have to own the idea themselves."

Tomorrow: Creating class schedules for hundreds of students with dozens of required courses and desired electives can be a principal's worst administrative nightmare. How do they do it?



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