After more than a decade of criticism that its methods are ineffective, the nation’s largest and best-known substance abuse prevention program will be receiving an entirely new curriculum, thanks to a $13.7 million grant awarded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The grant recipient, the University of Akron, has revised the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) curriculum based on new prevention research and will test it using local D.A.R.E programs in six cities nationwide. Detroit has been named as one of the test cities; the other five cities have not been decided, but names emerging as possible test sites include Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Houston, San Francisco, and Baltimore.

D.A.R.E. now operates in 80 percent of all school districts around the country, reaching an estimated 36 million young people. Despite 18 years of its “just say no” programs and an annual budget pegged by news articles at approximately $230 million, D.A.R.E. has acknowledged that its strategy has not had sufficient impact, leading officials to develop a new approach to spreading its message.

Through the new project, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the University of Akron, and D.A.R.E. America say they have developed the next generation of substance abuse prevention programming.

“We want to take the knowledge gained through prevention science and see it applied in the real world,” says Nancy Kaufman, vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “D.A.R.E. is the perfect vehicle. We have designed a state-of-the-art program and will test its effectiveness.”

In Detroit, a total of 80 high schools and their 176 feeder middle schools will participate in the study. It is estimated that 50,000 students will take part. Working with D.A.R.E., the University of Akron will implement and evaluate the effectiveness of the new curriculum over the next five years.

D.A.R.E. has come under fire from many different organizations in the past decade, as studies have found that kids who go through the program in elementary school are just as likely to use drugs later as kids who don’t. Most recently, the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. surgeon general have issued reports saying the program is not working. On the other hand, supporters point to D.A.R.E studies that show the positive aspects of the program.

Whichever studies one believes, the fact is that D.A.R.E. believes it’s time to revamp the system, and the changes are quite extensive.

According to the New York Times, the new D.A.R.E. program breaks from its previous incarnation in several major ways. The new program will work on changing accepted attitudes of “social norms” by students.

“The idea,” the Times states, “which has been shown in limited studies to reduce drinking on college campuses, is that traditional prevention programs may lead students to overestimate how many of their peers use drugs. Because teenagers are so open to peer influence, the students then begin to aspire to the ‘norm’ and think they must use drugs to fit in.”

Other changes, as outlined by the Times, include:

  • Shifting focus from its current audience of fifth-grade students to those in the seventh grade and adding a booster program in the ninth grade, because students in the higher grades are more likely to experiment with drugs.

  • Having police officers serve more as coaches than as lecturers. The officers are to encourage students to challenge the social norms in discussion groups; the intended result is that the students will conclude on their own that they do not need to use drugs to fit in.

  • Emphasize, through role-playing, how to make decisions, and to discuss the effects of media and advertising.

“This new program draws on what we have learned from our research about the elements of effective prevention by addressing the normative beliefs, personal attitudes, and problem-solving and resistance skills of students. It will provide specific information about the consequences of substance abuse and the role and influence of peers and advertising in affecting normative beliefs,” says Zili Sloboda, principal investigator for the project.

“Substance abuse has remained stagnant, which is unacceptable,” says a D.A.R.E. spokesperson. “Fourteen percent of our nation’s youth are using illicit drugs. The numbers haven’t decreased, and that’s not D.A.R.E.’s problem, it’s America’s problem.”

Links:

The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) web site offers specialized information for educators, students, parents, and law officers. The site has links to national and regional organizations and drug research.
http://www.dare.org

The Detroit News web site contains an extensive series of articles over the last year that discusses the D.A.R.E. program.
http://www.detnews.com/2001/schools/0102/16/a01-188976.htm

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted to health and health care. The foundation has just launched a special web site that discusses substance abuse and serves as a clearinghouse for information.
http://www.substanceabuse.rwjf.org

The Institute for Health and Social Policy is developing the new D.A.R.E. curriculum. Its web site contains links to drug research.
http://www.uakron.edu/chsp