Challenging Dogma - Fall 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Drug Abuse Resistance and Education (D.A.R.E.): A Failed Health Intervention – Pierre Cornell


The iconic slogan, “D.A.R.E. to resist drugs and violence,” is printed across black t-shirts and mugs across the United States. The campaign D.A.R.E., or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is a police officer-led series of lessons taught to children in classroom-based settings [1]. The lessons are taught to children anywhere from kindergarten all the way up to the twelfth grade [1]. The lessons work to prevent children from using illegal drugs, joining gangs, and participating in other violent activities. There are four facets to the curriculum: providing knowledge about drug and alcohol use, teaching effective decision-making skills, offering alternatives to substance use, and teaching children how to deal with overt and subtle peer pressures [1]. Currently, 75% of the United States school districts and numerous other countries around the world have adopted the program [1].

The program began as a national non-profit organization that was founded in 1983 by Los Angeles Police chief Darryl Gates and Glenn Levant [1]. One of the main problems faced by the LA Police Department at the time was narcotics-related crime. Chief Gates believed that uniformed police officers had the training, the experience, and the background needed to teach school-aged children the adverse effects of drugs and violence [1]. Today, D.A.R.E. continues to be run by a national board of executives in California.

Although D.A.R.E. is found throughout the United States and programs have been instituted internationally, studies have consistently shown that the curriculum is ineffective in reducing the use of illegal drugs in children and adolescents. A study that was conducted by a North Caroline research firm, The Research Triangle Institute (RTI), and funded by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, found that D.A.R.E. significantly failed to reduce drug use among students that had participated in the curriculum [2]. Emphasis was placed on the idea that D.A.R.E. was taking the place of a potentially more effective intervention. A randomized longitudinal field study conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that there was statistically no difference in children that had participated in the program from those that had not participated in the program, in terms of recent and lifetime use of drugs and alcohol [3]. A third study conducted at the University of Kentucky analyzing 10-year follow-up on students that had participated in the D.A.R.E. program, found that in none of the cases was there any improvement in actual drug use, drug attitude, or self-esteem improvement in any of the study subjects [4]. None of the studies addressed the influence of D.A.R.E. on violence as an outcome measure. Numerous other studies in the literature have shown that D.A.R.E. does not effectively prevent drug abuse, the attitudes of drug use, or alcohol consumption in children and adolescents. D.A.R.E. remains to be a controversially utilized intervention.

The program was implemented in the early 80’s when no other program addressed drug use and violence in youth. More money was allocated to the program’s growth until the program grew in recognition and became institutionalized within the school system. Parental and community support came without any evidence for efficacy for lack of an alternative.

Three main areas of interest arise in an investigation behind why the D.A.R.E. program fails to be successful. The arguments are mainly based on the social implications that affect adolescent substance abuse. The first argument draws upon the notion that the program does not take into account peer norms and how they influence the behavior of adolescents. The second argument places the importance of preventing adolescent drug abuse on parental influences. D.A.R.E.’s curriculum leaves no room for parental interaction. Therefore, the program fails to address a highly significant factor that affects adolescent drug use. The third argument presented here, discusses that the program does not take into account the core values of children and adolescents. In fact, D.A.R.E. might go against the core values of youth thus, pushing youth away from the desired message of the intervention. The acceptance of an ineffective drug program into the school system prohibits effective programs from being instituted and has grave implications for the health outcomes of future generations.

Critique Argument 1

One of the main social factors that D.A.R.E. fails to address is the perception of peer use of illegal substances. A study conducted at Weill Cornell Medical College found that perceived friends’ drug use, perceived peer smoking norms, siblings’ smoking, and refusal assertiveness were most directly related to substance abuse in inner city adolescents [5]. The study suggests that if youth have the perception that their peers are using illegal substances and drug use is a norm among that age group, then they are more likely to use illegal substances. Statistics from the CDC show that only 20% of high school students had reported smoking a cigarette in the past 30 days [6]. Fewer than 20% of adolescents have reported ever using any illicit drug [6]. Therefore, the majority of America’s youth are not participating in smoking and drug use. Throughout the multiple-lesson curriculum, the D.A.R.E. program conveys the idea that there is a substantial problem of drug use among adolescents. Constantly conveying the message that drug use is high among peers suggests to them that drug use among peers is a norm. This in turn, would cause more drug use among those adolescents that are going through the D.A.R.E. curriculum. For D.A.R.E. to be more effective in preventing drug use, a different approach should be used in which peers are shown not to be using drugs or participating in violence.

An increase in perception that drug use among peers is a norm could have grave implications for peer pressure. The D.A.R.E. program teaches methods to avoid peer pressure, but if adolescents perceive that drug use is common among peers, they will be more likely to engage in undesirable activities. Furthermore, the didactic method of learning how to deal with peer pressure in the classroom does not reflect what occurs in the heat of actual situations. Although, D.A.R.E. works to teach youth how to deal with peer pressure, the program fails to address other social factors that could affect how and when adolescents succumb to such peer pressure. Perceived social norms could encourage adolescents to act irrationally, even when lessons are aimed at teaching youth how to act rationally in given situations.

Critique Argument 2

A second social factor that fails to be addressed by the D.A.R.E program is the influence that parents have on their children with regards to drug abuse. Numerous studies have shown that parental smoking and parental attitudes toward smoking are associated with smoking initiation among children [7]. Reasons that have been attributed to the elevated risk of adolescent smoking among adolescents whom have parents that smoke include, increased availability of cigarettes for adolescents to access, increased curiosity to try smoking, and premature nicotine dependence from elevated exposures to second-hand smoke [8]. Increasing the awareness of parents to the detrimental effects of their smoking habits on their children’s health could help to reduce some of the factors that contribute to the elevated risks of drug use among these parents. D.A.R.E. police officers have no contact with parental figures at any time within the curriculum. Although, the curriculum teaches conventional methods of resisting peer pressure from friends and community members, D.A.R.E. fails to address pressures that could arise from the lack of parental support. There is less likely to be a change in parental behavior due to D.A.R.E. when in fact, parental behavior is directly related to the behavior of their children. An intervention that increases parental awareness of drug abuse among their children would help to decrease drug use among youth.

Numerous other factors that affect the ability of parents to support the prevention of drug abuse among children include socioeconomic factors, availability of drugs within schools, neighborhood safety, institutional racism, and discrimination. D.A.R.E. fails to address any of the secondary factors that might decrease the ability of parents to support a drug free existence for their children.

Critique Argument 3

The ideology of D.A.R.E. that uses police officials to teach drug and violence resistance goes against the core values of America’s youth. Advertising theory suggests that incorporation of the audiences’ core values into the promise of the intervention is essential for success. The didactic method of teaching youth about drug use has had the potential to result in the complete opposite outcome intended by the intervention.

“Youth involvement” was one of the main aspects of designing Florida’s “Truth” campaign that made it highly successful. The team that was assembled by Florida’s Department of Health to confront tobacco use in Florida’s youth began development of the program by convening a 500 person youth summit to gain insight into the core values of America’s youth and to learn what would be the most effective methods of reaching out to children and adolescents. With regards to gathering information, one of the team members writes, “Interviewers used bad language and, without really trying, were seen as peers. Trust was built in the information gathering stage that went well beyond any interaction in a focus group. Trust led to real answers.” (11) From the research of youth core values, the team found that having control of one’s life, rebellion, and making independent decisions was of utmost important. The team member writes, “…Youth told us that they did not want to be told what to do. They wanted ‘the facts’ and then to be left to make their own educated decision. If we were to be successful, ‘truth’ could not preach. ‘Truth’ needed a message other than ‘don’t’ (11).” Designing interventions around the core values of the target population is critical for the success of the intervention.

Unlike the ‘truth’ campaign, D.A.R.E. failed to take into account the core values of America’s youth. Adolescents have to constantly deal with peer pressure for drug use. Having an authoritative figure preaching “don’t” with regards to drug use, goes against the core value that the research behind the ‘truth’ campaign found to be most important. According to advertising theory, the core values of the audience are vital when giving the promise of an intervention. One facet of the D.A.R.E. curriculum that goes against the ideas behind advertising theory consists of students signing a pledge against using drugs [1]. The mandatory pledge communicates a restriction to youth, whereby going against the core values of independent decision making and revolting against authority. Furthermore, D.A.R.E.’s slogan “Just Say No” is a direct order toward changing behavior. A direct order for behavior change does not work with children and adolescents. The boomerang effect of drug use during a time when D.A.R.E. was the most highly used drug intervention for children in that age group is attributable to deviations from advertising theory. The structure of D.A.R.E. unknowingly branded itself as an intervention to tell youth how to act and how to behave with unsuccessful outcomes.

Proposed Intervention

A more successful alternative intervention to D.A.R.E. would take into account key aspects from the Social Science Theories. The intervention would have to address peer pressures, family influences, and youth core values. The issues would be addressed by increasing youth understanding that the majority of peers are not engaging in drug use, by increasing youth awareness that drug use would interfere with preferred lifestyles of the youth, by increasing parental awareness of their children through program involvement, and increasing community involvement within the implementation of the program.

The proposed intervention allocates interaction time between younger and older students to discuss matters that need to be addressed by the program. Instead of having a 10-week curriculum like D.A.R.E. where an official police officer teaches lessons, the alternative intervention would allocate one or two months where high school students could interact with middle school students and college students could be brought in to interact with high school students. For example, two college students and two high school students could work with a class of middle school students. The four students would come back to the same class weekly, to discuss and interact with the younger students. The idea being that older students would act as mentors to the younger students, with the emphasis of drug use. Multiple visits over a designated period of time would help to build a rapport between the students and the mentors. The mentors would go through similar training that D.A.R.E. officers go through, so that similar messages are given within the interactions.

Teachers, parents, and community members would facilitate the interactions between students. Although, these members would be included to facilitate the interactions, emphasis would be placed on the students organizing the discussions and the activities that occur during the interactions. Teachers, parents, and community members could also be involved in selecting the older students that would come to talk with the younger students through the program. The facilitators could help to design the activities that the older students utilize with the younger students to work towards the prevention of drug use. Also, the facilitators act as chaperones to lend support to all of the participants within the program.

All of the interactions would have the central theme of having the older students discuss drug use with the younger students. The interactions could begin in the classroom with discussions between the mentors and the students. Activities could be designed to have the older students teach the younger students how to react in certain situations where peer pressure could arise. Interventions could also be designed where older students and younger students can interact outside of the classroom. For example, a meeting could be scheduled to allow free ice-skating at a local ice-skating rink with older and younger students. The older students could then discuss alternatives to drug use with the younger students. Ultimately, the way the interactions are set up would depend on the mentors that are chosen to participate in the program and the kinds of things they would want to instill on the younger students. The interactions would also depend on the community and the involvement of the community. For example, a program committee meeting could be designed in communities to allow for community members to help support youth. Mentors can come to committee meetings and work to design activities for the youth.

Students could also receive benefits for being mentors within the program. The program could serve as a good volunteer program similar to The Big Brother program. Otherwise, college credit might be given if short curriculums are designed and implemented by the student. The benefits associated with instilling proper behavior with regards to drug use and gaining experience working and educating young children would be incentive enough to participate as a mentor in the program.

Defense of Intervention Section 1

The proposed alternative intervention would address the issue of perceived social norms among adolescents. Students would be able to see older mentors that live drug free and hear mentors discuss that drug abuse is low among their friends. Open discussions of drug use would allow perceptions of drug use among peers to be more transparent. Emphasis can be placed on conveying the fact that only a small percentage of youth actually engage in activities that involve drugs.

Students working with other students in the prevention of drug abuse would boost confidence levels among the younger students. If younger students can be taught techniques of avoiding succumbing to peer pressure from older students, then the younger students would be better able to handle hot situations where there is peer pressure among peers their own age. The interactive nature of student mentors teaching younger students allows for a more realistic environment for younger students to learn how to deal with peer pressure situations. Having a police officer teach younger students how to act in peer pressure situations is not relatable and would be less effective, than if lessons were coming from student mentors.

Defense of Intervention Section 2

Family involvement is a key aspect to the prevention of drug abuse in youth. Using family members as facilitators would help to increase parental awareness of drug abuse among their children and the ill effects that their smoking has on the health of their children. Although, increasing awareness does not necessarily mean smoking cessation, but increased awareness might work to reduce the leaving cigarettes around for their children to find for example. Increasing parental awareness would also help to engage parents in activities that children are participating in at school. Supporting the prevention of drug abuse at home is as important as preventing drug abuse among peers.

Community committee meetings would also work to increase involvement and dissemination of information produced by the program. One of the strengths of D.A.R.E. is the program’s popularity, political support, and wide availability. Community committee meetings would be a good way to gain community support for the program and increase awareness of drug abuse occurring within the community. Similar to Neighborhood Crime Watches, increased community involvement in the prevention of drug abuse could help to lower rates of drug use within that community.

Defense of Intervention Section 3

The alternative intervention refrains from using a didactic method of teaching youth as found in the D.A.R.E. program. Rather, an interactive method between youth is used to convey the message that smoking and drugs are not commonly used among students. A comparison of D.A.R.E. with a more interactive drug abuse program, All Star, found that students were more committed in the program outcome and showed a greater potential for influencing targeted problem behaviors [10]. The program All Star used classroom teachers to discuss drug abuse. The idea that an open discussion with someone more familiar, as a teacher or community member might be more beneficial than speaking with a police official, as done in D.A.R.E.

The interactions that occur between students in the proposed alternative models also bring into account the core values of America’s youth. While D.A.R.E.’s curriculum is designed by a board of executives and implemented by police officials, the alternative model allows for the core values of youth to be expressed by the mentors. The mentors are able to design lessons and portray the message that they think is most beneficial to those taking part in the program. The mentors within the program are closer in age or generation of those that they are teaching. Therefore, many of their core values will coincide. The positive message of resisting drug abuse and violence can be conveyed, while maintaining the core values that youth find the most important. If younger students see older students not using drugs, they will get the impression that that is the norm. Therefore, the younger students will be more likely to adopt the behavior of the mentors. Also, the student mentors can emphasize the importance and desirability of participating in other activities for example, school sports and clubs. Shared core values between the mentor those being taught would increase the commitment to the program and influence behavior in a positive way towards the prevention of drug abuse.


D.A.R.E. is one of the most widely accepted youth drug programs in America. Although, numerous studies have shown that the program is ineffective in reducing drug use among youth, the program is still institutionalized into our nation’s school system. The failure of D.A.R.E. results from the exclusion of incorporating social factors into the curriculum and the failure to understand youth core values. If an intervention can be designed in which the resistance of drug use is portrayed as a peer norm and family awareness can contribute to the prevention of substance abuse, than better outcomes would ensue. Furthermore, community involvement would help to address the larger societal influences that could affect adolescent drug use. New, effective, evidence-based programs that address social issues need to take over the role that D.A.R.E. has had in American over the past 20 years.


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