Untold millions of public and private dollars have flowed into the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program since 1983. Now, the free ride might be coming to an end.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to spend money only on programs that can prove their ability to cut the incidence of young people abusing drugs or alcohol.
Despite 21 years and a presence in about 80 percent of schools in the United States, DARE is not one of 58 programs recognized by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
There are more studies saying DARE, the program that puts police officers in classrooms to teach age-appropriate anti-drug messages to K-12 students, doesn't work than those that say it does.
Deputy Steve Benson is the DARE officer for the Colbert County Sheriff's Department.
He is rock-solid in his belief that the program helps children avoid drugs and alcohol. He dismisses the various studies questioning DARE as unfair.
"They haven't come into the classroom," he said. "I've never seen them interview a student. I don't know where they get their information."
The California Department of Education concluded that DARE was ineffective in 1997. A Department-commissioned study of 5,000 students at 240 schools found that as students age, they become progressively more convinced that drug-prevention programs are ineffective.
American Federation of Teachers polled a group of sixth-graders, then talked to the same students in 10th grade and as 20-year-olds. AFT concluded, "DARE had no effect on students' drug use at any time through 10th grade."
The study found that at age 20, there were no differences between those students who received DARE and those who did not in their use of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or other drugs, or levels of peer pressure resistance."
"We've seen what everybody else has seen," said John See, assistant director of public affairs for AFT. "The program is not as effective as DARE officials would hope."
Even the federal government, which created the program and has provided the bulk of its funding, has given up on DARE
The United States General Accounting Office reviewed six long-term studies of DARE's elementary school program in 1993. The GAO concluded, "we . found no significant differences between students who received DARE in the fifth or sixth grade and students who did not."
DARE supporters believe in the program despite whatever problems it may have.
Lauderdale County Sheriff Ronnie Willis, who spent five years as a DARE instructor and was once named DARE Instructor of the Year, believes the material is only as good as the teacher.
"It depends on the officers' ability to keep the kids involved," he said. "You've got to keep it exciting and good for the kids."
Benson cites the rapport he's built with his students as evidence that DARE builds relationships between young people and law enforcement that lead to good choices about drugs and alcohol.
Colbert Sheriff Ronnie May is so committed to DARE he has said he will find a way to keep the program alive even if state and federal governments cut all funding.
"In this county, we've gotten a lot of good feedback," Benson said.
"Even if all funding is cut, there will still be DARE in Colbert County."
Willis pointed out that more departments are moving away from DARE and choosing to have school resource officers whose role is less as educator and more as security.
He noted there are more grants available for departments looking to add an SRO than for DARE programs.
Kent Hunt, associate commissioner for substance abuse at the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, told The Associated Press that public spending on DARE is already shrinking.
"I see a movement away from that unless DARE can modify their curriculum and get a stamp of approval as an evidence-based or science-based program, and it's not there yet," Hunt said during a meeting at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
DARE may not die.
Program directors are continually updating the curriculum, and the University of Akron is conducting a study due for release in 2006 evaluating the effectiveness of the program's middle- and high school curricula. And the program counters with 30 studies it says prove its effectiveness.
Despite the ATF's critical report, See wants to see the program succeed.
"DARE is a major player in preventing drug and alcohol use and abuse," he said. "If it was to disappear, there would be a huge void. If they can improve the program and make it more effective, that would be a good thing."
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