Whether or not DARE’s return to Houston Independent School District in January will successfully keep kids away from drugs remains to be seen, but one thing it will certainly do — what the district and its police department are intending it to do — is give kids more face time with police officers.
DARE, the drug use prevention program targeted to children and teenagers, was discontinued in the district in the mid 2000s due to widespread criticisms of its ineffectiveness and lack of funding. HISD Police Chief Pedro Lopez brought the idea to revive DARE to Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan when he joined the department in May. It was a precarious moment, as the killing of George Floyd sparked a global movement against police brutality and racism.
“With all the anti-police sentiment across the nation and in Houston, and especially with our kids, when I took the job at the end of May, that's one of the things Dr. Lathan and I wanted to work on,” Lopez said. “That's the bridge I'm trying to cross, to connect the community with the police officers. As one of my first steps, I introduced DARE.”
DARE’s original “just say no” slogan and style of teaching was proven scientifically (and anecdotally, as many now-young adults can tell you) to be ineffective in dissuading people from using drugs. According to Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Weekly, spending 45 minutes lecturing kids about drugs actually increased drug use. My personal memories with DARE begin with me getting a T-shirt for answering questions correctly and end there too — I can’t even remember the questions.
DARE turned a corner in the 2010s, coming to rely on discussion-based learning modules designed to be more holistic, focusing on communication and decision-making. For example, instructors speak for an average of eight minutes before encouraging small group discussion. Studies show that the new curriculum has reduced drug use among its participants.
“It’s all about prevention instead of reaction, and we need to do that in the early grades,” Lathan said.
But that wasn’t the winning argument that’s bringing it back to HISD. Michael Hecht, a researcher who helped rewrite the curriculum, said that under both the original program and its new iteration, there’s evidence that children developed more trust in the police after participating.
State representative Jarvis Johnson, whose district encompasses all eight participating schools, evoked the police killing of Breonna Taylor during the press conference announcing DARE’s return.
“There are a lot of conversations about defunding the police, and I think it becomes too adversarial,” Johnson said. “Through the DARE program, when police officers are working with children and talking with children they see those kids differently. And those children see those officers differently. And that’s the type of thing we need in our community to make sure that our police are not looked at like enemies and our children, our families, our community are not looked at like enemies. … That's the most important thing about bringing DARE back.”
Although the curriculum has been overhauled, DARE will still have police officers teaching children in eight elementary, middle and high schools. Thirty-five HISD officers and seven HPD officers participated in a two week training earlier this month.
“Can't wait to hear how a partnership with HPD and HISD will benefit HISD,” one Facebook commenter wrote on the district’s DARE announcement, before expressing her concerns with police behavior in the district’s schools.
Lopez emphasized that unlike the original iteration, the new DARE programming will be led by HISD’s police department, not HPD.
“There's a lot of messages out there saying, ‘school police officers are brutalizing our kids’ and that's just a false narrative,” Lopez said. “We have very low rates of abuse of force against our students. There were no injuries in 2019 — I believe there was one, but a minor one, it wasn't anything where the kid had to be hospitalized.”
Lopez said that the district’s police department is a “majority minority department,” which he hopes will help the officers relate to the district’s students, who are predominantly Black and Hispanic. Almost 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.
“We understand that [with] issues at home, especially when you're dealing with poverty and the parents not being able to have jobs, there are a lot of things that can impact a child's ability to learn that occur outside at home,” Lopez said. “A lot of our police officers came from that same environment, so they can relate to the kids a whole lot better.”
Lopez also said they’re working with academic researchers to ensure students of every background can learn from the program, including ensuring Spanish-speaking officers are among those leading the classes.
According to Lopez, a one-time community outreach grant from the Texas Education Agency is covering the bulk of the expenses: curriculum research, training and an evaluation a couple years down the road. HISD PD will pay an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 every year for recurring training and materials costs.
Lopez said that Johnson, who has worked with DARE since 1997, “with his influence, helped push the initiative through.”
“We’re in unusual times in America right now where there are police officers versus community, and we know that especially in minority communities, there's been a disconnect with police,” Johnson said. “I think there’s a perception problem, not a policing problem, that many people look at police officers like they're the enemy and they’re not. Oftentimes there are police officers that look at our children and think they're bad when they're not. If only we had good dialogue.”
Dialogue is one thing; we'll have to wait for that evaluation to see whether DARE has an impact on community trust or drug use.