Researcher: Most schools use substance abuse programs that have been proven ineffective

School districts in at least 11 states use drug prevention programs not proven to be effective, in most cases because they don’t know about better programs, researchers say.

Programs being used “may be popular with the public and the schools, but there are little or no data to show that they have been proven to be strong and effective in combatting drug use,” Denise Hallfors, research associate professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a recent report.

Programs considered “ineffective” according to scientific criteria often are more heavily marketed than other, lesser-known but more effective programs, Hallfors said.

In North Carolina alone, 95 percent of school districts surveyed last year were using the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program, said Hallfors, who studied 101 of the state’s 117 school districts.

In a separate survey of 81 school districts in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, Hallfors found that 82 percent were using the D.A.R.E. program.

“That was what was surprising to us, even though research shows there are programs more effective,” she said.

Hallfors questioned the emphasis that popular programs—including D.A.R.E., Here’s Looking at You, and McGruff’s Drug Prevention and Child Protection—put on lecturing kids about drug abuse.

“It is not enough for a teacher, a parent, or a police officer to tell school children that drugs are bad for you, don’t use them,” she said. “We have to go beyond that. We have to use role-playing and skills learning to help children negotiate with peers and make positive choices.”

A study conducted last year at the University of Kentucky showed the police-taught D.A.R.E. curriculum had no effect on whether students used drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. While D.A.R.E. has critics, it also has high-profile supporters, like White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

Citing a number of studies indicating that drug use is up among Utah students, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said he is dumping the city’s D.A.R.E. program this fall in favor of other alternatives. The city spends $287,000 a year on the program.

Salt Lake City isn’t alone. A North Carolina state education official said other schools are beginning to turn to more effective programs, such as Life Skills Training.

D.A.R.E. is more community-based and valuable to give students a view of authority figures, said Artie Kamiya, section chief for arts education and healthful living at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. But Kamiya agreed that research has shown D.A.R.E. not to be effective over the long run at stopping drug use.

Life Skills Training, on the other hand, gets to the core of the problem by teaching kids”how to deal with peer pressure, dealing with communications skills that allow you to express your feelings without putting down a peer or a friend,” he said.

A 1998 federal policy requires that drug prevention programs be assessed for effectiveness. Unwillingness to change programs could eventually cost districts their share of the $566 million in federal funds for the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act, said Hallfors, whose research was funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

She said part of the problem, according to drug abuse coordinators who answered the surveys, was lack of time and money to study and implement other programs.

Hallfors and research associate Melinda Pankratz, a doctoral student, said the surveys were designed as a baseline measurement of drug prevention programs and will be repeated next year.

In addition to Life Skills Training, Pankratz listed Project ALERT and Reconnecting Youth as drug prevention programs that have been proven effective scientifically. n


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599; phone (919) 962-2211, web

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 301 N. Wilmington Street, Raleigh, NC 27601-2825; phone (919) 715-1246, web

Life Skills Training program (Princeton Health Press), 115 Wall Street, Princeton, NJ 08540; phone (800) 636-3415, web

Project ALERT program (BEST Foundation), 725 S. Figueroa Street, Suite 1615, Los Angeles, CA 90017; phone (800) ALERT-10, fax (213) 623-0585, eMail, web http://

Reconnecting Youth program, Leona L. Eggert, Ph.D., R.N., Psychosocial and Community Health Department, University of Washington School of Nursing; contact: Nan Macy, (206) 685-4733 or

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