D.A.R.E. Just Says Goodbye -- Loss Of School Drug Program Leaves Vacuum

Now that the leftover red-on-black stickers have been packed away and the police department's drug-prevention officers have been reassigned, educators at Seattle's elementary schools are beginning to calculate their losses.

Life after D.A.R.E., many say, promises to be a challenge.

"What do they want us to do?" asked Carole Williams, principal at B.F. Day Elementary School. "You can't take it away and just say no."

Seattle Police dropped the nation's most popular - and most visible - drug-prevention program this summer, citing budget cutbacks and concerns about the effectiveness of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

Joining several other cities, including Spokane and Oakland, Calif., Seattle concluded that there were better ways to spend the $250,000 a year that the program cost.

"When we've got shrinking funds, we have to allocate officers in the most effective ways," said Seattle Police spokeswoman Christie-Lynn Bonner.

With severe budget problems of their own, educators wonder how they'll fill the gap left by D.A.R.E.'s departure.

"It's difficult to add one more thing on the table for teachers to do," said Jim Oftebro, principal of Highland Park Elementary.

A 17-week curriculum taught by uniformed Seattle Police officers, D.A.R.E. gave students information about drugs and alcohol and, through role playing and group discussion, taught them ways to resist peer pressure.

Of all the prevention programs offered in Seattle schools, D.A.R.E. was consistently rated the most popular by students and principals. Eighty-seven percent of the children who had the program rated it good or very good.

Some of the district's elementary schools relied on D.A.R.E. to meet its requirement for prevention education for fifth-graders.

Many students have access to other programs taught by teachers and intervention specialists. One, called "Here's Looking At You, 2000," deals with the peer pressure issue.

But in a survey of principals, just 32 percent said it was very useful, compared with 73 percent for D.A.R.E.

D.A.R.E. deals most directly with drugs, program supporters say. Police officers know the answers to specific questions, such as the difference between crack and crank.

"Most teachers and principals are worlds apart from that," said Williams, the B.F. Day principal.

Extra money for retraining teachers or hiring more specialists doesn't exist.

"We'll just do the best we can," district spokeswoman Dorothy Dubia said.

The police department's decision came as attention to teenage drug use was soaring nationwide.

But D.A.R.E. has been criticized in recent years by some as more costly than useful.

Seattle Police and city officials said a study by the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina influenced their decision to drop the program. The study, which analyzed eight studies of D.A.R.E., said the program had little impact on students' drug use.

Other cities still think the program works. About 270, including New York, have added D.A.R.E. this year, said the program's president and founding director, Glenn Levant.

A deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for 30 years, Levant said D.A.R.E. has been analyzed in more than 40 studies since its inception in 1983. To focus on one of them, he said, was wrong.

"Seattle is getting quite a reputation as a heroin capital in the Northwest," he said. "It is just a tragic time to be eliminating not only what is a popular program but what is an effective program."

Some education districts view D.A.R.E with ambivalence.

The San Juan School District considered dropping the program recently after a group of parents worried that their children were being encouraged by D.A.R.E. officers to inform on their parents. Superintendent Steven Enoch said the school board eventually voted to keep D.A.R.E. with a few minor modifications.

Spokane Police Sgt. Mike Prim, who headed the D.A.R.E. program there, said his department's decision to cancel the program had to do with money. People there thought they could do the same job, employing D.A.R.E.'s techniques, for half the money.

"The numbers are saying it had no effect," he said. "But we could tell you stories for hours about kids who have come up to us on the street and said it's affected their lives."

Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart also has indicated he would discontinue D.A.R.E. not because of criticism, but because of a tight budget and an increased demand for more officers on the streets.

And in Seattle, some have expressed skepticism about the curriculum but praised the positive interaction with police.

"Parents and students liked to have officers come to the school," said Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council Parent Teacher Student Association. "It's too bad we can't figure out some way to have that relationship."

But police spokeswoman Bonner said that unlike when D.A.R.E. was started in 1988, that relationship does exist.

She said about 70 police officers spend some time at a school during the year, as part of a violence-prevention program or community policing teams.

"What we are looking at is incorporating the D.A.R.E. message in everyday contacts between police officers and students," she said.