mitchell column

D.A.R.E.’s profitable for owners, but does it work?

Taboo until not too long ago was asking any question about D.A.R.E., an anti-drug program, or any other intrusion upon the school day.

People, and especially the press, have been expected to applaud any effort to do anything about young people and narcotics. Anyone who looked past the photo ops, T-shirts and posters to ask whether the programs were actually having any success was deemed a heretic.

“Heavens yes, we’re having a positive effect,” the response might come.

“But statistics show more youths experimenting with drugs, not fewer,” a persistent parent might insist.

And then would come the standard spin: “Yes, but without our program, who knows how much higher those numbers would be?”

To make that argument, of course, is to say an increase in homicides doesn’t mean a city has become more violent because, without such and so, the rate of increase might be even higher.

It’s hooey as logic goes, but it generally shuts off questions.

Specifically for D.A.R.E., an acronym for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program invented by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates in 1983, the applause started fading about 10 years ago. Repeated and varied studies, some conducted by universities and some conducted by the federal government, showed that children just weren’t moved by D.A.R.E.’s message.

There were good points. Starting in elementary schools, the programs were conducted by actual, uniformed officers and provided an opportunity for interaction between police and children in a non-emergency setting. Also, the officers assigned to D.A.R.E. duty were usually the most personable in the department. As such, they fostered the image of police as people who care and who help. That might have helped overcome the image of police as people to avoid, even if that fear was created innocently by a lead-footed parent who cringed upon sighting a cruiser.

But there were also bad points.

The basis of D.A.R.E. is not so much that drugs are bad, but empowerment of youths. Other arguments have been that the program insults teachers and takes away instructional time.

States, including Mississippi, license teachers, test teachers and require four-year college degrees as a minimum to having them in classrooms to communicate information to students. Police officers assigned to D.A.R.E. duty have a script to follow, but are not licensed, tested or trained as educators.

And if it’s true that well-rounded, self-confident people are least likely to fall prey to bad habits, including drugs, then minutes sacrificed from imparting the kind of academic knowledge that builds self-esteem should be authorized only on clear proof that the minutes are not being wasted.

Next, we come to the crux of D.A.R.E. and myriad other programs school officials put in place as part of what they often call their “social responsibility.” All the materials in such programs are copyrighted, all such programs generate big bucks for their creators and it’s arguable whether profit margins are higher in telling children not to do drugs or in actually selling children drugs.

You name the program, D.A.R.E. or any other, and Mississippians are spending millions every year to fund them. It’s only natural, then, that those with a vested financial interest would tend to defend their programs against criticisms and to work feverishly to discredit any study that says their programs don’t work.

The core people to be pitied in this process are the kids.In some districts, there are balloon launches for world peace, walks around the track to find cures for diseases and myriad other “awareness” events. There are programs on the dangers of smoking and dipping that dip into class time. There are programs such as D.A.R.E. And then there’s the all-time classic – taking students out of class to lecture them on the importance of staying in school. Ah, the irony.

To their credit, the marketers of D.A.R.E. dropped a lot of their resistance and seriously examined the curriculum. Importantly, they agree that whether the program has measurable results is important.

That’s progress.

Overcoming the taboo against asking whether a program is having the desired result is a major education reform. For schools to get better at what they’re supposed to do, people have got to stop piling on change after change without checking back to see what works.

And getting rid of what doesn’t.

Go to any school summit and all the talk will be about what needs to be added. Sorry, but subtraction would often be a better idea. And it’s free.

Charlie Mitchell is managing editor of The Vicksburg Post, P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182. E-mail reaches him at post@vicksburg.com.