"DARE: The Anti-Drug Program That Never Actually Worked" Courtesy of LAUSD
DARE, the popular drug education program, had no measurable effect on drug use. ( me and the sysop )
If you went to grade school in the 1980s or 90s, chances are good you were publicly offered drugs at school by a uniformed police officer.
"Hey," he might have said, "Want to meet up behind the gym after school and get high?"
Luckily for you, you were savvy enough to understand that this waste an earnest offer. It was an exercise in resistance .
"No thanks!" you'd say. "I have homework to go do."
"Come on," he'd retort. Impressed with your delivery, he'd decided to step up the simulatedpeer pressure . "I thought you were cool."
"Not doing drugs is cool," was your reply.
Your classmates might have applauded, at the officer/teacher's prompting. Then you went back to your seat, and the officer would go over the things you did well in the exercise, so the class could learn by your example. In addition to teaching the other students, the officer was also building up your self esteem .
Self esteem and resistance were two major cornerstones of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program, also known as DARE. Through the 1980s and the 1990s, DARE swelled from a tiny local program to a massive, and massively expensive, national campaign against drugs in schools. At its peak, DARE was practiced in 75% of American schools , and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to run. It had spiffy, 90s branded swag, and a baritone-voiced mascot, "Daren the Lion."
There was just one problem: DARE didn't work.
Students who went through DARE weren't any less likely to do drugs than the students who didn't. In fact, there's some well-regarded research that some groups of students were actually more likely to do drugs if they went through DARE.
Scientists knew DARE was ineffective relatively early on, but the program grew anyways. The program's eventual reform was the result of a long and hard battle between evidence-based research, and popular opinion.
DARE's Humble Beginnings
The original "Officer DARE": DARE's founder, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates , later became infamous for his handling of the Rodney King Riots
DARE got its beginnings in the city of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Daryl Gates, the LA Police Department (LAPD) Chief of Police, helped create the program, and became its first figurehead. The story goes that when Gates noticed that the number of drug busts on school campuses was increasing, he had the idea to focus on preventative education instead of punishment. As Gates told the L.A. Times in 1993:
"We had 'buy programs' in the schools where undercover officers would buy drugs from students. We kept buying more and more. It was appalling, depressing. I finally said: 'This is crazy. We've got to do something.' "
The LAPD, in conjunction with the local rotary club and the LA Unified School District (LAUSD), came up with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program, DARE (also, incidentally, a pun with Chief Daryl Gates' first name.)
Dr. Ruth Rich, the district's health education specialist, was tasked with selecting the first curriculum. Research on drug prevention education was already underway at USC, under the title "SMART." But there was a catch -- Gates wanted DARE to be taught by police officers themselves, not doctors or teachers. Rich agreed with him, on the grounds that cops are more familiar with criminal culture. As she told the LA Times , "There's a gap between the street and the classroom. Police officers are believable on this subject. When it comes to drugs, they're more credible than a teacher."
The idea of police officers in the classroom turned off some of SMART's original authors, including the head of the research team, Andy Johnson. Reason Magazine reported, "Though sympathetic to Rich's dilemma, Johnson had serious objections to handing an experimental educational program over to the local police."
Without Johnson's oversight, Rich took the SMART curriculum and patterned her own off of it. In 1993, there were two main versions of SMART: one that focused on developing personal goals and self esteem, and another that focused on resisting things like peer pressure and advertisements. Rich combined the two approaches.
When the school opened in September 1983, the LAPD took to the classroom to both teach kids about the dangers of substance abuse, boost their self-esteem, and help them practice "just saying no" (a la Nancy Reagan ). Within a few years, DARE was a regular fixture in LA schools. By the mid-nineties, it was a national organization with multi-million dollar annual revenue.
The program was popular among parents and students from its inception. It was also popular among politicians and bureaucrats, who saw DARE as a way to be proactive about, "The Drug Problem." From the Reason Magazine :
"[People were] eager to find an easy solution to the problem of juvenile drug abuse. DARE became 'a rallying symbol to do something positive about the drug abuse problem.'"
This political status carried DARE far. In 1986, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) published the first independent review of DARE , reporting that the program had short-term results. Although it drew criticism from the scientific community, DARE earned NIJ funding as a result of the study. DARE also soon won a $140,000 grant from the Department of Justice to expand the program to the national level. And Congress passed the "Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986," which set aside 10% of State Grants to Governors for police-staffed, in-school, drug education programs, and mentions DARE by name.
Like that, DARE became a national, nationally funded movement. In 1988, U.S. presidents started recognizing National DARE Day, a practice that continued into the Obama administration . By 1992, the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act money accounted for almost $10 million nationally . By 1995, DARE estimated its own costs at $200 million .
That first independent review of DARE, which found that it had an effect on drug use, quickly started to look like an extreme anomaly. By 1991 there were already more than a dozen published studies claiming that DARE had absolutely no measurable effect on drug use. This negative finding proceeded to bear out through another two decades of research.
This came as no surprise to the social scientists behind DARE's original curriculum, the SMART program. A few years after DARE started, the USC researchers made an alarming discovery about SMART: early versions of the program didn't work. In fact, some of them had a "boomerang effect," by which participation correlated to higher rates of drug use. But by the time of this discovery, the LAUSD had grown "distant", according to SMART researcher, Bill Hansen . Hansen and Johnson claim they reached out to DARE to help revise the curriculum, but were rejected.
"What they took was the prototype," Hansen has said , "we went through thirty versions of the curriculum, so a lot of the stuff they lifted was antiquated, in our view."
The problem was that, to a lot of people, it seemed like common sense that DARE would justwork . "Everyone believed that if you just told students how harmful these substances and behaviors were—they'd stay away from them," Frank Pegueros , the current president and CEO of DARE. America, has said.
This deep-seated, folksy belief in DARE's ability to combat a publicly reviled problem gave it a decades-long stranglehold on the American education system. ''We suspect that there are gaping holes in the program and that it may not be cost-effective, but legislators are politicians,'' a legislator told the New York Times in 2004 , on the condition that his name not be used. ''No one's going to risk their political future by doing anything other than standing up with the parents. Parents vote.''