Just Say No to DARE

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NATE HOWARD/ROCHESTER POST-BULLETIN/AP

Pedro Villegas, a fifth grader, reads through the Spanish version of DARE

Here’s a news flash: "Just Say No" is not an effective anti-drug message. And neither are Barney-style self-esteem mantras.

While most Americans won’t be stunned by these revelations, they’ve apparently taken a few DARE officials by surprise. According to the New York Times, after years of ignoring stubbornly low success rates, coordinators of the 18-year-old Drug Abuse Resistance Education program are finally coming around to the news that their plan to keep kids off drugs just isn’t working. That means a whole new DARE program — one which critics hope will sidestep existing pitfalls.


An ineffective past
DARE, which is taught by friendly policemen in 75 percent of the nation’s school districts, has been plagued by image problems from the beginning, when it first latched on to Nancy Reagan’s relentlessly sunny and perversely simplistic "Just say No" campaign. The program’s goals include teaching kids creative ways to say "no" to drugs, while simultaneously bolstering their self-esteem (which DARE founders insist is related to lower rates of drug use). It's apparently not a bad way of educating five-year-olds about the dangers of drinking cleaning fluid. But it's a bust at keeping teenagers from smoking pot.

According to an article published in the August 1999 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, DARE not only did not affect teenagers’ rate of experimentation with drugs, but may also have actually lowered their self-esteem. The study, called "Project DARE: No Effects at 10-Year Follow-Up," bluntly deconstructs every claim the program makes. More than 1,000 10 year-olds enrolled in DARE classes were given a survey about drug use and self-esteem, and then, a decade later, the same group filled out the same questionnaire.

The findings were grim: 20-year-olds who’d had DARE classes were no less likely to have smoked marijuana or cigarettes, drunk alcohol, used "illicit" drugs like cocaine or heroin, or caved in to peer pressure than kids who’d never been exposed to DARE. But that wasn’t all. "Surprisingly," the article states, "DARE status in the sixth grade was negatively related to self-esteem at age 20, indicating that individuals who were exposed to DARE in the sixth grade had lower levels of self-esteem 10 years later." Another study, performed at the University of Illinois, suggests some high school seniors who’d been in DARE classes were more likely to use drugs than their non-DARE peers.

The weakness in the old DARE program, as several studies suggest, was the simplicity of its message — and its panic-level assertions that "drug abuse is everywhere." Kids, program directors learned, don’t respond well to hyperbole, and both the "Just Say No" message and the hysteria implied in the anti-drug rhetoric were pushing students away. It’s also possible, some researchers speculate, that by making drugs seem more prevalent, or "normal" than they actually are, the DARE program might actually push kids who are anxious to fit in towards drugs.


Trying something new
The new DARE curriculum, designed with these criticisms in mind, is less preachy, more experiential. It applies to a broader age-range than the old program, reaching kids not only in fifth grade but in seventh and ninth grades as well. It hinges on discussion groups rather than lectures. And it pointedly does not say "drug abuse is everywhere" — a new angle that researchers hope will make kids realize that maybe everyone doesn’t use drugs after all — so maybe they don’t need to either.

Programs like this inhale money, and by introducing a new curriculum, DARE officials guarantee a renewed federal grant, whether the program works or not. Obviously, the officials are hoping for the best. But even if the program fails, we can hope for a silver lining: Perhaps this first failure has taught DARE directors a degree of humility; maybe this time around it won’t take them 10 years to recognize failure and plot a new course.