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Truth or D.A.R.E.

How a widely discredited drug program snuck its way into New York City schools.

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At P.S. 20 on the Lower East Side, Mrs. Capic’s sixth-grade class has a lot of fun when police officer Carla DeBlasio comes to visit. They all shout, “Good morning, Officer Carla,” and clamor for the chance to play with her lion doll; they listen to her warnings about the hazards of narcotics and chime in with the answers to her follow-up questions. Police and schoolkids united against drugs: At a glance, it looks like a scene from a more innocent time.

But Officer Carla visits this class as a part of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), a police-run program that in recent years has come under tremendous criticism: Studies show that students who’ve gone through the program are no less likely to use drugs than those who haven’t. Though the program is run in more than 75 percent of public schools across the country, New York City did not add D.A.R.E. to its curriculum until just last year -- well after the reports of its ineffectiveness were well known.

D.A.R.E. entered New York City schools through the back door in 1996. Heading into an election, Mayor Giuliani appointed an advisory committee to help select tough new anti-drug initiatives. Though the committee included many law-enforcement officials, it didn’t include any drug-prevention expert. And its only educational recommendation was D.A.R.E. “Kids didn’t trust cops,” says Bob Strang, the committee’s chairman and a former DEA agent. “Our one overriding objective was to bring the police and the community together, and D.A.R.E. certainly does that.”

Because the Police Department already had approval to teach a different program in the schools, the Board of Education’s official consent was not required for the shift. And since D.A.R.E. receives federal funds, and needed no city money, there was no period of public comment. “We didn’t want to go to the board,” says Strang. “How long would that take?”

As a result, the parent groups that usually subject curriculum changes to exhaustive debate say they weren’t aware D.A.R.E. was being considered. Judith Baum of the Public Education Association says, “I hadn’t seen this come up on the public agenda of the Board of Education, or heard it discussed anywhere.” Some groups didn’t even know it had eventually been approved. “I am personally not aware of it,” says United Parents Associations president Ayo Harrington.

No definitive studies have yet been completed on D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness in New York, but its previous record does not bode well. In order to meet guidelines for federal funding, D.A.R.E. condemns all drugs and all forms of drug use, whether hard-core or social -- and emphasizes their evils, rather than the possible ways to reduce consequences like addiction, alcoholism, or drunk driving. “They tell kids that they are teaching them to make a decision, but they present only one choice -- ‘Say no,’ ” says Joel Brown, author of a study for the state of California. “They don’t give honest and complete information. By the time kids get to seventh and eighth grade, they believe that they are being lied to and reject the message and the messenger.”

“D.A.R.E. has been updated nine times,” says its president, Glenn Levant. “We’re continually updating it.” But according to Dennis Rosenbaum, author of a recent University of Illinois study, “the changes are minimal.” Nancy Tobler, who wrote the most comprehensive study of D.A.R.E. research, agrees: “I’ve just run the data, and the effectiveness doesn’t seem to have changed any.”

At P.S. 20, however, the faculty is delighted with D.A.R.E. Principal Leonard Golubchick credits it with helping to make the school “an island of sanity in a sea of insanity.” Debra Capic, the class’s teacher, says her students trust Officer DeBlasio, speculating that “a lot of my kids would go to her before they would go to me with a problem.” And DeBlasio, who recently started a basketball league on her own time, seems to have developed a strong rapport with the kids.

Lynn Argo, who chairs a professional network of all the Board of Education’s substance-abuse-prevention counselors, allows that these are all valuable benefits -- but not what the program was designed to do: prevent underage drug use. “I’m sure D.A.R.E. has its place,” she says. “I just don’t think that its place is in New York City public schools.”


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