For 45 minutes every week, the teachers and students who participate in the Houston Police Department's DARE program get what Councilwoman Martha Wong calls "a little break." As part of Drug Abuse Resistance Education, a uniformed Houston police officer teaches the fifth- and seventh-graders about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. In return for participation (17 weeks for fifth-graders, ten for seventh-) students receive free DARE T-shirts, DARE pencils, DARE erasers, DARE rulers and the opportunity to see one of the two special DARE vehicles: the black Corvette or the blue Chevy pickup.
Administered by 70 percent of our nation's public school districts and 180 of HISD's 185 elementary schools, the 15-year-old Los Angeles-based DARE has become the unquestioned king of drug-resistance programs. Its winning combination: uniformed police officers, encouragement that borders on cheerleading and a lot of free paraphernalia emblazoned with the program's logo.
Thanks to almost universal popularity, the program has become politically unimpeachable. "How can you be against kids and cops working together?" Councilwoman Annise Parker asks rhetorically, "It's a great opportunity to have pictures of police officers with smiling kids."
Few people criticize efforts to keep kids off drugs, which may explain why Houston has never evaluated DARE since the police department began offering the program in 1987. But for the past four years, Houston councilmember Ray Driscoll has been quietly leading a fight to evaluate the program's effectiveness and its $4 million budget.
This year, Driscoll finally got his wish. University of Houston professor Dr. Bruce Gay is conducting a study of the DARE program, funded by grants from the Houston Police Department; his study should be out this month.
But regardless of what Gay's report finds, the Houston Police Department may continue to fund and operate DARE. "To them it's automatic: 'DARE's a good program and it works,' " says Driscoll, "Of course, they can't prove that."
Nor will the program's supporters do so with the UH study. According to Gay, the study will survey DARE students on their opinions about drug use and violence before and after they complete the 17-week course. But even critics have never questioned DARE's short-term effects. In a 1998 study, Dr. Dennis P. Rosenbaum of the University of Illinois at Chicago concluded that "DARE was able to have both immediate and short-term effects" on its graduates. But, he found, "nearly all of these effects dissipated with the passage of time and did not survive the critical high school years."
Sergeant Fletcher, however, claims that the criticisms voiced in Rosenbaum's study are not valid, thanks to a major program overhaul in 1994. Now DARE supplements the 17-week program presented to students in the fifth grade with a ten-week program presented in seventh grade. According to Fletcher, these ten additional 45-minute lessons, in the heat of adolescence, provide DARE students with the tools to resist drugs throughout high school.
The Rosenbaum study, however, was only the latest in a series of reports, from Kentucky to California, that have all reached the same conclusion: DARE has failed to produce long-term results. And that, says Wong, is what a drug-prevention program should be all about: "My concern is long-range effects. If it doesn't have long-term effects, why can't the teachers teach the information?"
Loath "to see money being wasted," Driscoll proposed an amendment to Mayor Lee Brown's 1999 budget. The measure would cut DARE's funding in half, using the freshly cut $2 million to search for a new drug-education program.
Few councilmembers wanted to support a measure that would cut DARE so severely. Even a self-described "knee-jerk conservative," Councilman Rob Todd, voted against the amendment, claiming that "we don't have any alternative." Needless to say, the amendment went down in flames, 114.
Todd, who read reams of studies on DARE's efficacy, believes that it is impossible to assume that Houston's program is ineffective simply because those in Kentucky, Illinois and California are. "No offense to councilmembers Driscoll or Wong, but I would no more attribute that Houston is like Chicago or Los Angeles than I would say that Clear Lake is like their district."
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to killing the DARE program lies in the personage of Mayor Lee Brown, who brought the DARE program to Houston 12 years ago. In the words of a Brown spokesperson, "He thinks it works; he thinks it's a good program."
The Houston Police Department also believes in DARE. In fact, Chief Bradford's unwillingness to commit to fixing problems that the UH study finds caused Annise Parker to vote for the Driscoll amendment. "I was willing to vote against the amendment if the chief was willing to act on the study," said Parker. "Chief Bradford was unwilling to say that he would fix the program. It's very frustrating."
Part of the department's commitment to DARE may be because of the marked change observed in officers selected to participate. "They arrive as the typical street cop: They have become somewhat callous and somewhat hardened because they have been exposed to so much hurt and pain on the streets," says Fletcher. "As they begin to realize the difference they will [make] in these kids' lives, you see a softening and a commitment to compassion."
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Obviously, DARE is something more than simply a drug-education program to the 71 HPD officers in the DARE unit. Parker believes that recent criticisms have simply increased the department's protection of the program: "There's sort of a bunker mentality developing around DARE."
And from deep within the bunker, Fletcher lashes out to discredit his critics. According to the sergeant, most of the criticism levied against DARE is made by researchers with a personal agenda or by those who support the legalization of drugs. "There are misinformation efforts by researchers who have their own drug-prevention programs to sell," claims Fletcher. "There are also organizations, for example NORML [the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws], that have made efforts to criticize DARE because of its very clear message: 'Don't Use Drugs.' They don't like this message; they want kids to use drugs recreationally."
While DARE's effect, or lack of one, may never be conclusively proven, drug-use statistics seem convincing. With drug use among teens on the rise, is it safe to say that the most widely employed drug-education program in the country is working? Driscoll says no. "We are putting a lot of money into DARE, a lot of money that is not showing up on the bottom line as far as drug use is concerned."
To reach T.R. Coleman, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.