Daring to question an antidrug program
By Mary Croke marycroke@home.com

My feelings about the DARE program have always been mixed.

DARE is the "Drug Abuse Resistance Education" program in place in many schools, taught at the higher elementary and the junior high levels. My children and their friends have all been through it, and so far they seem fine. Of course, they're still young.

Some part of my mind has been in love with DARE. It always sounded like such a great idea: Inoculate these kids against the dangers ahead. What's more, DARE quells parental fears. Parents are nervous people anyway, and the prospect of their teens taking chances does not improve their mood. So the attitude has been, "We're up against something big, and if there's anything at all we can do, let's do it."

On the other hand, something about DARE always roused my suspicions. Something about all that earnestness and consensus, that whiff of sanctity, the snazzy marketing. I'd wonder how children manage to learn "self-esteem" and "peer pressure resistance" in 17 easy lessons, and I'd wonder who had paid for all those T-shirts and teddy bears. (Answer: you and I, as taxpayers.) DARE reminded me of somebody who dimly suspects he's been licked, but keeps fighting anyway because that's the only thing he knows how to do.

The sad thing is that it does appear that DARE has been licked. Most decisively so, if you believe the folks who've made it their business to study its efficacy.

The research results have been around for years. They periodically show up in the press - there are mountains of studies - and the news is always the same: There is little to no correlation between DARE participation and teens' long-term substance abuse. Rebuttals exist, but they're anemic. (For example, there are results, not many, that show DARE achieving short-term success. But short-term success is not the goal.)

Maybe something will turn around one of these days. Who knows? Maybe DARE will somehow discover the definitive silver-bullet curriculum that survives all scrutiny. But what's more interesting to me is why these findings - and they are incendiary - are so roundly ignored. It's not as if you see parents squabbling in the halls or journalists doing big exposes on TV. What gives?

One thing could be that DARE is popular at the street level. I hadn't really thought about it until I talked with other parents and asked: Could all of this research have been wrong? If we're wasting our time and money, wouldn't we want to know? Could there be other programs that work better but we don't know about them because DARE has filled our field of vision?

Some responses were mild, others very heated. I was firmly told that you can't believe everything you read, that you can always lie with statistics, and that ivory-tower types are out of touch with the real world. If I said, "In theory, our kids are losing big chunks of time out of their formal educations on something that sounds great but doesn't deliver," the response would be, "Who cares? If even one child is saved, it's worth that price."

This may sound like a failure to communicate, but it actually communicates plenty. It highlights our beliefs and fears and their power over us. We feel we're under siege, and the stakes are too high to tolerate even the simple asking of obvious questions.

The reality is we don't have as much control as we wish we had.

We have a good deal of control if we've provided stable homes and neighborhoods and we have relatively "easy" children. But reality bites. We can't change a larger social structure that frequently leaves children abandoned and at large with their insecurities. We can't change the human desire for mood-altering substances, or the physiological character of addiction, or the easy availability of drugs. And we certainly can't count on convincing our teens that we are more knowledgeable and more interesting than their friends. What's available is something that makes us feel better, that makes us feel that at least we're doing something. DARE helps get us through the night. There's more than wishful thinking at work. We're hurting, and we need to soothe ourselves.

But that means DARE is for us, not our children. Let's at least be honest about it, so we can get on with our responsibilities.