Why D.A.R.E. Failed to Keep Kids Off Drugs

Those of us who grew up in the 1980s might remember the D.A.R.E. program. Though it launched in 1983, it didn’t really take off until the next decade. This might explain why my classmates and I never sat through any presentations that I can recall. But it didn’t matter – we had Nancy Reagan to keep us straight. From “Just Say No” to D.A.R.E., this era was extraordinarily anti-drug. In other words, it was the exact opposite of the 1960s.

D.A.R.E., Explained

D.A.R.E. describes itself as a “comprehensive K-12 education program D.A.R.E. drug suitcasetaught in thousands of schools in America and 52 other countries. D.A.R.E. curricula address drugs, violence,bullying, internet safety, and other high-risk circumstances that today are too often part of students’ lives.”

The program of the present is a lot different than the original. It was reformatted for a major reason: the first program failed. D.A.R.E. didn’t make kids any less likely to say no to drugs (or alcohol, for that matter). The modern era mission involves not only preaching abstinence but a “keeping it REAL” rhetoric. Gone are the lectures – the “if you smoke weed you will die twice” proclamations.

The new program is about helping kids make smart decisions

It’s about safety and responsibly. It appears to be working too – early research has indicated it’s succeeded in reducing substance abuse, something the original program never did.

Part of the reason for the success of D.A.R.E. 2.0 is the people behind it: this program was built on the ideas of prevention specialists and behavioral scientists. The original D.A.R.E. was based on the ideas of police officers and teachers.

Failure Early On

The first D.A.R.E. program existed in schools until 2009, but the signs of its futility showed up long before. A 1994 study conducted by the US Department of Justice found that D.A.R.E. was somewhat successful in keeping kids from smoking cigarettes, but not successful in keeping them away from alcohol or marijuana. A 2009 report found a similar trend.

The cause of its failure is pretty obvious: telling people that something is bad for them is not enough. If it was, bacon wouldn’t be a thing. People who want to do drugs are going to do them, whether they’re kids or adults. Thus, for those who are curious, D.A.R.E. acted less as a cautionary tale and more as a menu listing vices in which to choose from. Hash? That sounds great. I’ll have that.

The Beginnings of D.A.R.E.

Per Time Magazine, D.A.R.E. launched on the coattails of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Its goals included teaching creative ways to say no to drugs while improving self-esteem. An article published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that D.A.R.E. didn’t decrease the level of teenage drug use. It did influence self-esteem, however, just not in the way the program proponents wanted: it was linked to a lower sense of self. A study conducted at the University of Illinois also linked D.A.R.E. to higher drug use. We know this can happen – there’s

A study conducted at the University of Illinois also linked D.A.R.E. to higher drug use. We know this can happen – there’s no surer way to get a child to want to touch a hot stove than to tell them not to

In dissecting the program, D.A.R.E. had two Achilles’ heels, one for each foot. First of all, it inflamed the idea that drug abuse was an issue (sure, it’s an issue in certain areas of the country, but an elementary school is probably not one of these areas). D.a.r.e. failedThis is similar to the approach that the movie “Reefer Madness” took – a propagandist position that weed is very prevalent and very dangerous in society. Over exaggerations are seen for what they are, even through the eyes of youth. And then they’re justifiably dismissed.

Telling kids that drugs are everywhere can also backfire: it can make children who feel like outcasts turn to drugs to fit in. Now the entire marching band is high – thanks D.A.R.E.!

The other weakness was the idea that taking drugs is a black and white decision – it’s not. It’s much more complicated than that. Telling kids to “Just say No” as if it’s a simple thing to do is not the way to get them to concede. Assuming a few words is all that’s needed to keep kids off drugs is a great way to turn “Just say No” into “Just do blow.”

The New and Improved D.A.R.E.

Per Scientific American, scientists first began to suggest a new D.A.R.E. back in 1998. They recommended lectures that weren’t long (the original ones were 45-minutes) and called for hands-on learning and role-playing.

Today’s D.A.R.E. is completely reworked. During lectures, instructors speak for only eight minutes or so, giving students plenty of time to practice role-playing activities with their friends. This sets kids up not to merely “say no” but to make smart decisions and know their options.

The new program is finding success because, for one thing, it’s not over the top. But the role-playing is also effective: most people learn better when they do something instead of just hear something. The “keeping it REAL” campaign involves four ways kids can help themselves when confronted with drugs (or anything else they don’t want to be part of): Refuse, Explain, Avoid, and Leave.

These concepts are working so far – kids who learn to keep it “REAL” are less likely to use tobacco or marijuana and more likely to employ a variety of tactics to stay sober. And they are more likely to hold firm in their anti-drug mentality.

The Future of D.A.R.E.

Despite its shortcomings, D.A.R.E. is a large network of teachers, police officers, and schools and that makes it worthy of another go. But how the legalization of marijuana will impact the program is yet to be seen.

It shouldn’t have much influence, truth be told, as D.A.R.E. is designed to keep kids off drugs and marijuana is still illegal for minors. Yet the attitudes are changing and this might mean the program needs to up its game, even more, to keep children drug-free. It might have to go from a regular dare to a double-dog one.

Jenn Keeler

About the author: Jenn Keeler is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in humorous lifestyle articles. She is one of the few people on earth actually using an English degree. Her heart belongs to the Denver Broncos and her husband. In that order.