"WE KNOW what works,'' President Clinton said last week in announcing his new $16 billion drug-fighting package. But part of the plan is expanding the DARE drug-awareness program for school children. And according to Mr. Cinton's Department of Education, DARE doesn't work.
DARE (drug-abuse resistance education) has been described as the world's biggest pet rock. It's money spent on nothing, but it makes us feel better. Study after study has concluded that the program, in which uniformed police officers visit classrooms of fifth- or sixth-graders for a 17-hour curriculum of drug education, is ineffective. Youngsters do or don't turn to alcohol or drugs in the same numbers and at the same ages, whether or not they have been exposed to the DARE program.
Last week's report by the U.S. Department of Education said other programs have proved somewhat more successful, but DARE is the biggest and best known. Since its founding in 1983 by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit DARE America, it has spread to 70 percent of the nation's school districts. It administers about $750 million a year in federal, state, local and private funds.
New York and Washington jumped on the DARE bandwagon last year, leaving Baltimore as one of the few large cities without a DARE program. Surrounding counties, however, offer it.
Why, if it doesn't work?
Desperation. Somebody's got to do something. After several years of decline, drug use is increasing again among teen-agers -- and among pre-teens: A report this week said that marijuana use by children ages 9 to 12 doubled last year.
Parents, teachers -- and the president -- don't want to hear that DARE doesn't work. That would mean that the fight against drugs is hopeless. What's three-quarters of a billion dollars, more or less, when the lives of our children are at stake?
There's another reason you haven't heard much about DARE's failure. DARE doesn't dare let the word get out. Researchers who have studied the program and journalists who have written about it have been subjected to intimidation and reprisals, including personal and property attacks and even, according to a report in The New Republic (March 3), the jamming of a television program critical of DARE.
"One spoke in the wheel"
DARE wears a friendlier face in Baltimore County. Sgt. Regina Ecker, the police officer in charge of the local program, cautions that DARE can never be more than ''one spoke in the wheel.'' Drugs, she says, ''have to be fought from all sides -- with reinforcement from families, media and public- service announcements.''
She cites an Ohio study that found DARE graduates were less susceptible to peer pressure, more likely to seek expert advice and better disposed toward the police than those who had not taken the program. Some 73 percent of the DARE youngsters were deemed to be at lower risk of drugs or alcohol, compared with 58 percent in the non-DARE control group.
Still, the more critical studies are not estimates of who is ''at risk,'' but measurements of actual behavior. Sergeant Ecker and Barbara Bray, of the county's Drug-Free Schools program, both say they expect a re-evaluation of the DARE program, but are not aware of any plans to replace it in Baltimore County.
They might read a letter to the editor on the page opposite. Walter W. Wilson, a Cockeysville 15-year-old, thinks DARE is both too informative in its explanations and too naive in its role-playing exercises. My two children, both DARE graduates, agree. If we care about our children, shouldn't we start by admitting that the DARE emperor has no clothes?
Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.
Pub Date: 3/08/97