Dare Checks Into Rehab

For more than a decade, Salt Lake City schools did as other schools did: they taught kids about drugs the DARE way. There were cops in the classroom, DARE T shirts and bumper stickers and the message "Just say no." But last summer, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson lambasted DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) as "completely ineffective," canned the city's budget for it and booted it out of the schools. DARE "has been a complete waste of money, a fraud on the American people," he says. "We should put our resources behind programs that work."

It was one of the boldest strikes yet against the nation's most popular drug-prevention program. Over the last decade, studies have repeatedly shown that the simplistic message of the $226 million program has little effect on keeping kids from abusing drugs--yet it continues to be used by 80 percent of schools. Now DARE is finally admitting it needs an overhaul. Last week officials announced they will be revamping the program, with the help of $13.7 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The new DARE, to be launched in seventh and ninth grades in six cities this fall, will reduce the lecturing role of local cops and involve the kids in a more active way. "If someone can tell us a better way to do good, we do it," says DARE's Glenn Levant.

DARE was launched in 1983, trying "to do good" with a staunch abstinence message that continues to have broad appeal among teachers, parents and kids. At North School elementary in Villa Park, Ill., DARE Officer Bob Budig gets high marks from fifth grader Jessica Ritter. "It felt really good to know I was a DARE graduate and would be drug-free forever," she says.

But researchers have found that while DARE may feel good, it doesn't do good: kids who go through the program in elementary school are just as likely to use drugs later as kids who don't. One of the key flaws, says Jerry Elsner of the Illinois State Crime Commission, is students are taught that all drugs are equally dangerous. When kids find out that's not true, it undercuts the message. "Kids are too smart," he says. "They want to be told straight up there's a difference between marijuana and heroin." Critics also say that using police, the ultimate symbol of authority, is precisely what many kids rebel against.

The criticisms have gotten so bad that DARE was almost killed off by its own advisory board. It has opted instead for a redesign. The new curriculum will attack kids' false perception that their peers are doing drugs more than they are. (Overall, teen drug use is steady or down slightly.) They'll be told the real statistics--to help support the large number of abstainers. And the program will show brain scans after drug use to hammer home the harm. It will also shift cops to more of a coaching role and have kids engage in role-playing about peer pressure.

But even a rehabbed DARE has many critics, who say the basic approach is still flawed. And the new program is going only into some schools; lots of kids will continue in the old DARE. Lost in the controversy are other lauded but underused programs, some of which go beyond the anti-drug message and teach basic social skills. But even the best program may not be enough. "This isn't a war we're ever going to win," says Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan. "It's a struggle we're going to contain."