A recent study released by the Institute for Health and Social Policy (IHSP) at the University of Akron indicates the new DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) curriculum, which promotes an anti-drug lifestyle for youth, works.
The study, conducted in Ohio and Texas in 1999 and 2000 respectively, found that students who participated in the new DARE reported a heightened awareness of drug problems and were less likely to become high-risk abusers, said Jessica Nickel, spokeswoman for IHSP. Other significant improvements related to the new program include a decrease in student's perception of peer drug use and a decrease in the percentage of students who believed substance abuse was common and acceptable.
Based on the initial study's findings that the new DARE program is successful, IHSP implemented another national study in October. The study, funded by a $13.7 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is being conducted in eighty high schools and their affiliate middle schools in cities across the country where the new program has been implemented, Nickel said. "It is the first national study to merge the latest research-based strategies for substance abuse prevention programming with a large prevention network like DARE," she said.
Zili Sloboda a senior research associate at IHSP, who is working on developing the new program, said the study is significant because it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive prevention studies ever conducted. Most importantly, if the national study shows long-term, positive results over the next three years, the new curriculum will be implemented across the country. "If we find the new DARE is an effective program, given the fact that the DARE delivery system is the only substance abuse prevention program with a national infrastructure, it should have an incredible impact on kids," she said.
Sloboda said, the primary objective of the research is to demonstrate the new curriculum has a more substantial effect on reducing substance abuse rates. "We are examining the combined impact of the program on both the 7th and 9th grade levels," she said. In the study, IHSP will be looking at short-term effects on refusal skills as well as communication skills including decision-making, as well as perceptions and normative beliefs about drugs.
Researchers will evaluate the success of the program by tracking students through 2005. DARE students' progress will be compared to that of students who have participated in another substance abuse resistance program, the old DARE or nothing at all. In determining whether the new curriculum is effective or not, the researchers will look closely at how the program was implemented and how the students responded to it and then make revisions, Sloboda said.
A Facelift for DARE
The program's central themes -- to develop students' capacities to understand the consequences associated with drug abuse, examine their own misconceptions about peer drug use, and develop communication and resistance skills -- have been incorporated into each individual lesson in the new DARE program. According to Sloboda, these principles are taught separately in the current curriculum. "My concern about the existing program was that if students were not present then they missed an entire lesson on one of the three areas of emphasis," she said.
Work groups also play a significant role in the new curriculum. Group sessions encourage students to develop refusal skills or approaches they feel comfortable using to say no to drugs. Now students collect information, discuss it and learn together, Sloboda said.
For example, students act as EMS team members who look at brain scans and examine the signs of drug abuse, or as courtroom participants who act out real-life problems. "The kids get excited about the courtroom activity, some dress up and bring briefcases to school," Nickel said.
The students also discuss how to approach situations in which they are likely to confront peer pressure to use drugs such as when someone brings alcohol to a party or is smoking a cigarette outside the movie theater. In one scenario, students must consider what they would do if someone they were interested in dating asked them to smoke.
Another key difference in the new curriculum is that DARE officers serve as facilitators of the lifelike and problem-based classroom activities instead of standing up in front of a class and lecturing. Sloboda said this is important because educational research has determined that children at the 7th and 9th grade level only learn when they are actively involved in the learning process. Sloboda said the program will teach the students how to make meaningful decisions.
"Officers have adapted cautiously, but when they get the opportunity to take it [the new curriculum] from the training arena to the classroom, they see how kids are reacting, they get and stay involved," said Bill Alden, deputy director of DARE America. "The classrooms are electric," he said.
The Decision to Change
DARE announced its plan to revamp its existing curriculum in February 2001. The move would match the program's unique delivery system with cutting edge research in substance abuse prevention.
Under the advisement of Dr. Herbert Cleaver, chairman of DARE's scientific advisory board, DARE accepted an invitation from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to overhaul the program following a conference in May 1998. "This was the first time we had the chance to sit down and talk with researchers who were critical of DARE in the past," he said. Meaningful discussion and a strong will to take the curriculum and expand upon it compelled DARE officials to recognize the need to make changes, Alden said.
"Out of the meetings came a recommendation that whatever DARE did we should not abandon the delivery system," he said.
The consensus among the conference attendees was that DARE's capacity to train and retrain its officers and their fidelity to the program was irreplaceable, Alden said. "It is important to have a science-based curriculum, but what makes DARE different is the commitment of the DARE officer in the classroom," Alden said. "Their belief and dedication is unmatched."
DARE which was created in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department to reduce or eliminate substance abuse for students, has attracted broad popular and financial support. In recent years, however, the program has been widely criticized for its ineffectiveness. In 1999, the University of Kentucky released a study indicating DARE only showed some short-term influence on actual drug use or drug attitudes, for example.
Others such as the Drug Reform Coordination Network have said that D.A.R.E. is no more effective than any other drug education program.
Lynn Zimmer, an expert on the effectiveness of drug education said DARE is a joke to some students. "Young people say it is not successful; when they are juniors in high school, they laugh and joke about it," she said. Kids are skeptical about what they were taught in the DARE classrooms when years later they see that their parents, older siblings or peers experimenting with alcohol and/or marijuana and are not punished the way the DARE officers predicted, Zimmer added.
Zimmer said the program is not effective in educating young people about drugs because the curriculum is delivered by police officers who "don't know much about drugs and do not have the kind of scientific knowledge required to teach drug prevention." "The only thing the officer does is to teach kids to say no. It isn't really education when you try to convince someone to do something," she said.
"What our kids need is drug education they can take into the world and use when they are adults. They need to understand how drugs work, the dangers and risks of drug use, and how to evaluate what are the major issues we all face," Zimmer said.
DARE, IHSP and the Robert Wood Johnson foundation are hoping the new DARE curriculum will do just that.
Drug Reform Coordination Network