Questioning the Value of DARE

The 1980’s birthed the War on Drugs, in which police departments gained power and money as part of a government attempt to curb illegal drug use. Part of this effort included the creation of the D.A.R.E. program, which the Los Angeles police department founded as a drug education aimed at empowering students to “Just Say No” to drugs, while strengthening police-student relations. The program rapidly gained traction across the nation, garnering massive government funding and appearing in more than 75% of school districts. Pleasanton Unified itself adopted DARE in 1988 and today, allocates almost $300,000 yearly for the program. Yet more than two decades since its implementation, DARE’s effectiveness both nationwide and within Pleasanton has been called into question, and we must discuss whether it should continue to exist as part of our introductory drug education.

There is not much information available online about Pleasanton’s DARE program, but we were able to contact a PPD officer to learn more. Pleasanton follows DARE’s “Keepin’ it Real” (KiR) curriculum, a 10-week program focused on preventing drug use by discussing their negative effects and providing true stories. The program aims to reinforce the idea that drugs are never a good option by emphasizing social and critical thinking skills and educating students on stress management and handling personal challenges.

DARE’s original curriculum has been rightfully criticized for focusing too much on the dangers of stronger and less common drugs and not enough on more prevalent ones. A 2002 review of DARE studies by psychologist Chudley Werch and health educator Deborah Owen reported teens under the DARE program “were more likely to drink and smoke than adolescents not exposed to the program.” The danger of DARE’s focus on the most extreme scenarios is that not enough attention is given to alcohol and tobacco use, and are implicitly considered to be harmless by comparison – an assumption that is deeply harmful to the reduction of drug use.

Even after the implementation of the KiR curriculum, any significant improvements on reducing drug use remain unclear. A 2017 study of DARE’s Keepin’ It Real curriculum by Theodore Caputi and A. Thomas MClellan “revealed major shortfalls in the evidence” to support KiR and concluded that it was “[not suited] for nationwide implementation.” A 2005 study by the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services found that 41% of high schoolers had consumed alcohol the last thirty days of the study. With these results, it’s clear that DARE and its reforms have failed to curb drug use.

Through its tactics, D.A.R.E incorrectly paints drug use as a result of peer pressure, which ignores the root causes of drug use. According to a 2016 National Comorbidity survey, ⅔ of teens who used drugs also suffered from poor mental health. A 2015 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that academic pressures on teens also incited drug use, with 7.5% of high school seniors using adderall, among other stimulants, to improve their studying habits. DARE categorically fails to address any of these underlying causes for drug use, instead maintaining the belief that “just saying no” to peer pressure is the best way to prevent drug use. Such a narrow-minded drug abstinence program does not allow students to truly understand drugs.

This is no way to foster true awareness and education about drugs. It’s time for things to change.

Introductory and secondary drug education in other, stronger curriculums have been far more effective than DARE. Created in 1997, the Oakland-based student assistance program, UpFront, “foregoes the [rhetoric of the] zero-tolerance model” and advocates for safe harm reduction strategies. Students who had historically been marginalized by zero-tolerance policies, Chuck Ries noted, “became the experts in the room” and often went on to become Upfront instructors alongside licensed therapists. It’s a shame that most schools, including those in Pleasanton, choose a subpar and outdated program like DARE, instead of evolving and experimenting with a program committed to honest drug education like UpFront.

DARE has had opportunities to improve over its two decades of its existence, but it has not done enough. Yes, it is federally-funded, and yes, it attempts to build rapport between children and law enforcement, but it has proven its failures time and time again. Real education must come from medically-sound advice, Pleasanton’s ties to its children, and trust in each other.