DARE revising program to reach older students
In a rite of passage for American schoolchildren, James Fester and his fifth-grade classmates ceremoniously vowed to forever avoid alcohol, tobacco and controlled substances.
Now, eight years after teachers, parents and the school's beloved police officer cheered the DARE graduates on to a drug-free life, Fester wonders how many of his classmates kept their fifth-grade promises.
"Less than 20 percent," said Fester, now a first-year Diablo Valley College student.
National statistics on drug and alcohol use show his estimate is likely on the mark. Last year, 80 percent of 12th-grade students questioned by University of Michigan researchers said they had tried alcohol at least once in their lifetime, 62 percent had smoked cigarettes, and 49 percent had used marijuana.
To improve the long-term effects of the hugely popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, the 18-year-old organization is trying a new approach. This month, DARE America leaders announced plans to overhaul the program with a new curriculum designed by prevention researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio.
Before changes take place nationwide, DARE will run a pilot program until 2006 in six cities and their suburbs.
The revised curriculum is designed for middle school students rather than elementary school children and will be reinforced by a new ninth-grade unit. Students will spend more time in group discussions and problem-solving activities. DARE officers, in turn, will act more like coaches, encouraging students to challenge social norms on their own.
The idea is to adjust students' perceptions of normal behavior. Students often start using alcohol and drugs to join what they think is the crowd -- a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. If they realize the norm isn't to drink, smoke, inhale or inject, they might be less willing to experiment, say researchers.
The proposed changes sound good to Fester, who gives himself only a C for his adherence to the fifth-grade DARE pledge.
"If students draw their own conclusions, the (lesson) is more likely to stick with them," he said. "And I'm all for group learning."
Fester recalls his DARE officer describing a person who might someday offer him drugs. It was always a stranger.
"He didn't tell you it would be one of your friends," said Fester.
The DARE lion, DARE song and DARE essay were all part of the drug-prevention fervor, said other Diablo Valley students. The lessons, they said, might have had more staying power if they hadn't stopped in fifth grade, before peer pressure kicked in.
"I'm real disappointed in my co-graduates from DARE," said Jamar Keene, 19, who attended elementary school in Benicia. "They forgot."
Keene declined to speak about his own post-DARE experience, but suggested he would have benefited from small-group discussions or one-on-one chats about drug abuse prevention. Both he and Fester said guest appearances by former drug users might have jolted the students, who would hear about the real-life consequences.
Others are less optimistic that a revised DARE -- or any school-based drug-prevention program -- would do much to curtail the problem.
What would work best to keep kids drug free?
"Strong connections with parents," said Brett Penney, 21, of Benicia.
"Absolutely," said DARE Officer Terry Foreman of the Pleasant Hill Police Department. "Some people think DARE is a cure-all -- I'm not that type of person."
He is convinced that DARE works, but only when parents, educators and police act in concert as designed.
It's unfair that DARE has received a bad rap by the media, says the police officer whom one school administrator described as "a guy who could wear a Superman cape and get away with it."
In four years as a DARE officer, Foreman said he's seen communities and schools strengthened. He's seen children build self-esteem. He's even had parents come to him for help with their own drug problems after hearing their children talk about DARE.
More than anything, he says, DARE has helped build better police officers. He can see now how much family background can affect a child's behavior.
DARE, Foreman said, has evolved and improved since current community college students were in elementary school. That the approach is changing again is a good thing, he added.
The new curriculum, already being tested in Ohio for two years, is underwritten by a $13.7 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J. It's the first major change since the organization added more student interaction and role-playing in 1994 -- a response to studies that showed DARE had minimal, and even negative, long-term effects on student drug use.
The latest changes come after U.S. Department of Education officials said schools would be able to use federal money for drug prevention programs only with scientifically proven methods.
It's unclear when or if schools in the East Bay will try the new curriculum. San Francisco was reported by some as a pilot city, meaning some schools in surrounding counties would be tapped for the trial run. But a spokeswoman for the national organization said the pilot schools and cities won't be identified for a few weeks.
"DARE is very good, and they shouldn't do away with it in fifth grade," said fifth-grade teacher Debbie Birnbaum of Concord's Sun Terrace Elementary. "The downside is it stops in fifth grade."
Rather than abolish the elementary experience, DARE more likely will make that program a stepping stone, said officials at the group's national office.
The Pleasanton Unified School District is among a few school systems nationwide that offer DARE in both elementary and middle schools. But it's the younger students who get the most attention now.
The reverse would likely work better, said Kathy Master, one of Pleasanton's two DARE officers.
Though Mt. Diablo Unified wants to keep the popular DARE program no matter what the featured grade level, it isn't about to rely on the police program alone.
Last week, Ken Duckert, student services director at Mt. Diablo Unified, spent several days in workshops to train teachers in one of the district's many other drug prevention programs. They were learning how to use "Here's Looking at You 2000" -- a program from an Illinois-based company that covers a lot of the same ideas as DARE.
But the package has two major differences: It is a K-12 program and is taught by the classroom teacher without a uniformed officer.
If all goes as DARE officials plan, the program could end up saving Fester from a lot of disciplinary problems. He plans to teach high school.