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DARE...Will the new version be any better than the old one?

DARE America has recently admitted that its program has not been very effective at reducing drug use and has announced that it is re-designing its program in an attempt to make it more effective. An article from the New York Times (Feb. 15th, 2001) says: "DARE has long dismissed criticism of its approach as flawed or the work of groups that favor decriminalization of drug use. But the body of research had grown to the point that the organization could no longer ignore it. In the the past two months alone, both the surgeon general and the National Academy of Sciences have issued reports saying that DARE's approach is ineffective; several cities, most recently Salt Lake City, have stopped using the program. DARE is also responding to a new hardnosed mentality among federal education officials, who distribute about $500 million in drug prevention grants each year. Starting last year, the Department of Education said it would no longer let schools spend money from its office of safe and drug-free schools on DARE because department officials did not consider it scientifically proven. The new curriculum buys the program time to prove that it does work."

We at ReconsiDer hope that the Department of Education will stick to their Principles of Effectiveness and refuse to release funds for the new DARE curriculum, which clearly has not yet demonstrated its effectiveness. We encourage the Department of Education to resist the temptation to fund the new DARE even though it's based on scientific principles until the new curriculum demonstrates its effectiveness, especially given the long history of DARE America defrauding taxpayers and parents by knowingly implementing an ineffective prevention program and the fact that the new DARE curriculum is not likely to be significantly more effective than the old DARE because the messenger lacks credibility in the eyes of many if not most adolescents. As an article in Newsweek (Feb. 26th, 2001) notes, many critics of DARE "say that using police, the ultimate symbol of authority, is precisely what many kids rebel against." ReconsiDer’s Michael Roona is one such critic.

Michael Roona was a member of the committee of nationally recognized experts in drug education that developed the new DARE curriculum. In the report below that Mr. Roona submitted to the DARE curriculum workgroup when he began working on the project, the problem of police officers teaching adolescents is discussed in some detail

 

Drug Abuse Prevention Project Curriculum Workgroup Goals and Recommendations

by Michael Roona

Let me begin by addressing a key aspect of the DARE program that is unlikely to change so that the parameters of curriculum reform are clearly defined. Even if the DARE curriculum is co-taught by a DARE officer and a teacher, a uniformed police officer most likely will be in the classroom during all lessons. For certain segments of the population, namely those youths who belong to communities that have been victims of the racial profiling, excessive use of force, police shakedowns, evidence tampering, court "testilying", and other everyday manifestations of the corruption that has emerged as a historically inevitable and logical consequence of vigorously enforcing our prohibitionist drug policies, the presence of a cop in the classroom will be problematic. While the drug thefts, frame-ups, and attempted murders of youths by members of the LAPD’s elite anti-gang task force, the execution of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx by members of the NYPD’s elite Street Crime Unit, and the hundreds if not thousands of lower profile, more localized incidents of police corruption and repression in municipalities and rural areas across America may simply be news stories to the average American, to certain populations they represent facts of life which, when woven into a narrative that includes the conspiracy between the FBI and local police department’s across America to assassinate Fred Hampton and other charismatic young political activists engaged in a struggle for liberation, contribute to a worldview in which the police are seen as agents of systematic repression and oppression, not enforcers of the law under which all citizens are equal.

The perception of law as an instrument of repression designed to enforce inequality rather than promote equality has some basis in fact. The United States, which contains 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s prisoners, incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other nation except Russia. And those incarcerated in American prisons are disproportionately non-white. In my home state of New York, a young Black man is five times more likely to experience the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood in prison than in college. Of those serving time for drug offenses, 94% are Black or Hispanic. Given the history of the use of law as a mechanism of repression (e.g., the Jim Crow laws in the South during the reconstruction era), it should not be surprising that many perceive the police in an extremely unfavorable light. I stress these points in my opening remarks to emphasize a point made by the curriculum reviewer. "While the officer conveys the values and rules of the community … (i)n some communities with high crime rates, trust of police officers is low and whatever the officers say or do is viewed as the system’s oppressive message" (section 7, page 15).

This observation is important because in the absence of trust, the best designed educational or therapeutic intervention that depends upon honest reflection and open communication will inevitably fail. In particular, there is no reason to believe that grafting curricular practices that have demonstrated their effectiveness when implemented by "trusted" program leaders onto a program that will be implemented by program leaders who are not "trusted" will yield the same level of effectiveness. My guess is that even if DARE officers implemented the Life Skills Training program with 100% fidelity, they would not be effective with those populations most at-risk of developing substance abuse problems and/or engaging in violent (including gang related) activities.

The place to begin looking for ideas about how to improve the DARE curriculum then, is those unique characteristics of the police officer’s social role that set her or him apart from teachers, peers, social workers, and others who might implement a prevention program. As the reviewers noted, "a (program) leader’s social role should interact with content to make him/her more … effective" (section 3, page 2). Beginning with the unique characteristics of the program leader rather than the literature about effective drug education practices has one other advantage. It frees us to think about the goals of drug education programs and measures used to define program effectiveness.

The curriculum reviewer asserts that the goals of the DARE and LST programs "are fundamentally the same; the prevention of substance use and abuse among teens" (section 8, page 5). While at an abstract level the programs may have similar goals, it is not clear that when the phrase "substance use and abuse" is operationalized, the goals will appear to be as similar. In fact, the reviewer’s own descriptions of the programs’ goals might be informative. The reviewer’s observation that "(t)he central goal of the DARE program at all levels is to reduce students’ use of drugs (including tobacco and alcohol)" (section 7, page 12) refers only to drug use, not drug abuse, and seems to include tobacco and alcohol as an afterthought. By comparison, the reviewer’s observation that "(t)he primary goal of the Life Skills program is to reduce significantly teenage substance use and abuse" (section 8, page 2) clearly indicates that not all use is abuse and it substitutes the more ambiguous term "substance" for "drug". Given that the LST program began as a cigarette smoking prevention program, this should come as no surprise. It does, however, raise important questions about the relative importance of different types of substances (i.e., tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs) as well as the difference between preventing use (or delaying the onset of use) and preventing abuse (or promoting responsible use, e.g., by choosing a designated driver before going out drinking with friends).

By focusing our search for ideas about how to improve the DARE curriculum on the unique characteristics of the police officer’s social role and the distinctions between the "use" and "abuse" of "substances" and "drugs" rather than the literature about effective prevention practices, we might be able to develop a curriculum that addresses unmet prevention program needs. According to the Monitoring the Future study, the lifetime use of both cocaine and heroin reported by eighth graders increased substantially in the early 1990s. During the second half of the decade, the lifetime use of these substances reported by eighth graders stabilized at record high levels. Between 1996 and 1999, about 4.5% of eighth graders reported using cocaine and 2.3% reported using heroin at least once in their lifetimes. Importantly, these rates of "hard" drug use remained stable at record high levels during an era when overall illicit drug use reported by young Americans was monotonically declining. If the police are actually more concerned about cocaine and heroin use than cigarette and alcohol use, then perhaps we should focus on trying to develop a program that might prevent or reduce the use of "hard" drugs.

There is an unmet need for programs that might address the new "hard" drug epidemic. When Thomas Payzant, superintendent of the Boston public schools recently became aware of the surge in heroin use among young people in Boston, he had to create a program from scratch to address this problem because none of the programs on "best practices" lists seemed to have any relevance. This is because most of the programs on "best practices" lists, like Botvin’s LST program, were designed as smoking or drinking prevention programs and were deemed "effective" based on their ability to reduce the prevalence of cigarette, alcohol, and/or marijuana use, not "hard" drug use. In fact, most "effective" prevention programs (including LST) do not address "hard" drug use and their evaluations never measured "hard" drug use.

The DARE program, on the other hand, does address "hard" drugs (albeit in a limited way) and it might just be that "hard" drug use can be addressed effectively in a fairly didactic manner by an authoritarian figure. Hence, rather than try to make the DARE curriculum less didactic so that students are engaged at higher cognitive taxonomic levels (a move which I suspect will fail in many less trusting communities if the course is taught by police officers), perhaps we should accept DARE as a program that employs direct teaching strategies emphasizing both recall and comprehension and focus our efforts on improving the curriculum organizers and more clearly focusing the curriculum on "hard" drug use.

In conclusion, while the eleven recommendations put forth (section 5, page 2) are for the most part pedagogically sound and would probably improve the effectiveness of DARE as a substance abuse prevention program in many communities, among communities with numerous risk factors for "hard" drug use they are not likely to work and may even backfire. While involving parents in homework, for example, is a pedagogically sound strategy, great care must be exercised when the teacher is a member of the law enforcement community, especially if members of the students’ families have substance abuse problems or have been arrested on drug charges. The level of trust a youth will have when interacting with a non-judgmental clinical psychologist, teacher, or social worker engaged in a nurturing or therapeutic activity is orders of magnitude greater than they will have when interacting with a law enforcement officer, especially in communities where even honest, hard working, drug free residents see cops as gang members who simply wear different colors than the Crips, Bloods, or Latin Kings.

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