School drug efforts fall under scrutiny
DARE program, others could lose funds after being labeled ineffective07/22/98
By Gayle Reaves Copyright 1998 Dallas Morning News
Many school districts in Texas and around the country may have to replace or rethink their drug education programs over the next two years because of recent action by the U.S. Department of Education.
The federal agency has just said no to spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on programs deemed ineffective in keeping kids off drugs. This year, the government will spend $556 million on anti-drug programs, including $40 million in Texas, through its Safe and Drug-Free Schools initiative.
The most widely used program in Texas schools could be affected by the new policies. The controversial D.A.R.E. program - Drug Abuse Resistance Education - is used in more than half of Texas school districts but did not make a list of programs researchers have labeled effective in reducing or preventing drug use among young people.
D.A.R.E., used in Plano and several other North Texas districts, has been criticized as ineffective and too restrictive. It is funded by a variety of sources, but the $345,000 spent annually by its statewide group to train police officers to teach its program comes from federal funds.
The main program used in Dallas schools isn't on the list, either, but officials said it shouldn't be affected because it does not use federal money.
Law Enforcement Teaching Students - or LETS - was developed by the Dallas Police Department and Dallas school officials. Several other area school districts also use it.
"This is going to impact most of what everyone does," in terms of school anti-drug programs, said Kay Beth Stavley of the Texas Education Agency.
Under rules that went into effect this month, the Department of Education will require school districts and other agencies that receive federal money to prove within two years that their programs reduce drug use among students.
School districts will have to tackle the tough job of scientifically justifying their current programs; choose programs that have already been accepted as effective; or find a new source of funding.
Schools that don't use federal money or those that already use proven, effective programs won't have to change, said Ms. Stavley, Texas coordinator for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program.
For others, "the reality is that schools need to seriously rethink what they're doing, really look at where their dollars are going, what's the best use of their funds," she said.
The education agency has given school and state officials a list of programs that experts say have been proven effective by testing and research. Education officials stress their list is partial and preliminary, intended only as a guide to school officials.
D.A.R.E. leaders say they have been consulting with federal education and Justice Department officials about what it would take to get their program on the recommended list.
"We are putting in place research to prove our effectiveness," said Dave Williams, statewide coordinator of the Texas D.A.R.E. Institute.
Officials with Fort Worth and Arlington, which use D.A.R.E., say they are reviewing their participation in that and other drug programs.
"All our drug programs will be reviewed except those found to be research-based," said Roy Griffin, coordinator of drug prevention programs for Fort Worth schools. His district uses a variety of anti-drug programs in various grades, including D.A.R.E., which is paid for by the Fort Worth Police Department.
When proven programs are available, he said, he questions continued use of curricula that may not work.
"If you know there's something that works and you're not using it, whose fault is that?" he said. "It's like saying we're going to try a new reading program for two years. If it doesn't work, we've lost two years of teaching children to read."
William Modzeleski, director of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, said the U.S. education agency became concerned "as we began to see drug use [among young people] go up again after decreasing for a decade, going up for four or five years in a row. We wanted to take a careful look at how our dollars are being spent."
The effort to make drug programs accountable comes at the same time as a new $195 million government anti-drug advertising campaign that is delivering stark messages about the dangers of drug abuse through newspapers, the Internet and broadcast media. Experts said it may take as long as three years to determine this effort's effectiveness.
For federally funded programs in U.S. schools, Mr. Modzeleski said, grant recipients must move beyond rating programs by popularity to judging them by results.
In North Texas, school officials, police officers and parents whose children have been through various anti-drug programs talked about how well-received the programs are and how beneficial they thought it was for police officers and students to interact in school. But they had little grounds for comparing programs and little hard data about how the programs affected drug use.
"I really feel the kids need all the kinds of information they can get, wherever they can get it," said Brenda Barnes, whose daughter, Lindsey, participated in D.A.R.E. at Short Elementary in Arlington.
"I know Lindsey talked real often about the police officers who taught the program. I would rather my kids find out these kinds of things through a great source than on the streets."
D.A.R.E. is only one of many programs that could be affected by the new federal policy. But long-standing criticisms of D.A.R.E. are in part responsible for the new policy.
Launched in 1983 in Los Angeles, D.A.R.E. is the largest and oldest and one of the best-known drug education programs operating in American schools. According to information from D.A.R.E., its program is taught to 26 million U.S. schoolchildren and 9 million in other countries. The set curriculum is taught, usually in fifth grade, for an hour a week for 17 weeks by uniformed police officers.
Plano Officer Jody Privett, a D.A.R.E. instructor, said the presence of uniformed officers is one of the program's strengths.
"The way most people I know in D.A.R.E. look at it is, any prevention [effort], whether D.A.R.E. or some other class, is great," he said.
But numerous studies over the last several years have found D.A.R.E. and many other programs have done little or nothing to reduce or prevent drug abuse by children and teens.
D.A.R.E. officials take exception to those studies. At the same time, they say they are commissioning their own studies to show it does get results.
In Texas, "we're doing a sampling evaluation," said Mr. Williams of the state D.A.R.E. Institute. The study, by an outside firm, will look at drug use by children who have taken D.A.R.E. classes compared with those who haven't.
Other critics object to D.A.R.E.'s use of student pledges to abstain from all drugs and alcohol and the program's teaching that drug use of any kind is bad.
Larry Nickerson of Fort Worth said his daughter, in a discussion of other school matters, volunteered that she didn't like D.A.R.E. because of the required pledge and because "the D.A.R.E. people continually harp on not using drugs and she already knows that, so why do they keep saying this over and over?"
Mr. Nickerson said he dislikes D.A.R.E. and would like to see the nation rethink all of its drug policies. He said he had not discussed his feelings with his daughter.
College student Lee Johnson, 21, took D.A.R.E. classes in sixth grade in a small town in Illinois. During the course, she said, rumors circulated that the instructing officer was himself a drug user. According to local newspaper articles, the officer resigned after being suspended and investigated for "improprieties" amid allegations of marijuana use.
When she has kids, Ms. Johnson said, she will not let them participate in D.A.R.E.
Of more than 40 kids in her sixth-grade class, she said, "I don't know of any kid . . . that didn't try drugs at least once. And some, maybe half, sell and/or use today. And I don't live in L.A. or anything. I live in your typical small-town U.S.A."
She said she believes her classmates' decisions about drugs were influenced by what happened to their D.A.R.E. instructor.
"A lot of what I heard was, 'How can you believe in something when the person teaching you is doing the opposite?' " she said.
A number of cities, school districts and police departments around the country have dropped D.A.R.E. because of concerns over its lack of proven results and other issues.
"D.A.R.E. is an excellent program," said Sgt. Brent Caughron of the Cedar Hill Police Department. But the city now uses other programs instead.
Dallas police Sgt. Mike Marshall credits D.A.R.E. with being a groundbreaker, "the program everybody learned from."
But after a few years of the early anti-drug programs, he said, police and school officials "found we were educating some very smart drug users. We were teaching kids how to recognize drugs, how to use them. Over a period of years, we decided that wasn't the best thing to do."
LETS was developed about 12 years ago to incorporate more "life skills," which D.A.R.E. also now includes.
He said he has been told LETS "is one of the few programs taught in schools that consistently gets outstanding reviews for quality and content. But as to whether they [those schools] have an increase or decrease in drug use, I don't know."
A quote from one of the scores of Web sites concerning D.A.R.E. sums up the problem in measuring drug abuse prevention and the attitude toward such measurement that the Department of Education rules seek to address.
"How do you prove a crime was prevented? How do you prove D.A.R.E. classes kept youth from using drugs?" the D.A.R.E. supporter wrote. "How do you catch a moonbeam?"
Not everyone is convinced that the new federal guidelines will bring about substantial changes.
Glenn Brooks is director of justice programs for the criminal justice division of the Texas governor's office, which distributes about $8 million of the federal drug education money.
"I've been around state and federal stuff a long time," he said. "This may turn out to be wonderful or it may turn out to be nothing."