Teaching Kids About Drugs: Alternatives to DARE

By Kristance Harlow 02/18/18

Any program predicated on the idea that people need to “just say no” causes the opposite effect. High risk groups tend to be encouraged to participate in the forbidden behavior.

Student walking down hallway
I "just said no" for a while, and then I became an alcoholic.

I remember the D.A.R.E. logo being plastered on posters hung in the hallways at school. At one point, I owned an oversized black shirt with the acronym in big red letters. I went to an assembly where a police officer told us some scary statistics about alcohol and drugs and gave us tips on how to “Just Say No.” I just said no for a while, and then I became an alcoholic.

Turns out, I’m not an outlier amongst D.A.R.E. participants. Beginning in the late 1990s studies uncovered disheartening realities that D.A.R.E. had no effect—at all—on whether or not students would go on to use or misuse drugs and alcohol in the future. After nearly 20 years of implementing the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in schools, long term studies were being published with damning data that proved its ineffectiveness.

A 1999 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology stated that “DARE status in the sixth grade was negatively related to self-esteem at age 20, indicating that individuals who were exposed to DARE in the sixth grade had lower levels of self-esteem 10 years later.” Some evidence even points to a higher risk of substance misuse for students who went through D.A.R.E. programs.

The program pushes a zero-tolerance agenda. Police officers talk to a class of students for about an hour once a week for 10 weeks. Courses are too short to teach behavioral techniques. The police officers teach students that all mind-altering substances are bad and that all kinds of drugs are equally bad. Apparently, getting high on meth is just as awful as drinking a beer while underage. They have long considered marijuana to be a gateway drug, which is objectively false, and are vocal opponents of legalization measures.

Despite the criticisms, it is still part of school curriculums in and outside of the United States. Many schools that deserted D.A.R.E. when its popularity waned have begun to bring it back into their classrooms. Vox reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at a D.A.R.E. conference and told the attendees, “We know it worked before, and we can make it work again.”

Any program predicated on the idea that people need to “just say no” causes the opposite effect. High risk groups tend to be encouraged to participate in the forbidden behavior. Scaring kids into avoiding drugs is also ineffective because scare tactics don’t work. It can increase curiosity in people who have not tried drugs and cravings in people who use drugs. A 2014 study published in School Psychology Quarterly found that scare tactics may be correlated with lower exam scores.

D.A.R.E. has evolved a bit over time to try and mitigate criticisms and to adapt to new waves of substance abuse issues. In 2007 D.A.R.E. added information about prescription drug abuse and the organization is planning to add the opioid epidemic to curriculum in 2018. It used to be a listen-and-learn class; now D.A.R.E. integrates more activities to get students interacting with the subject matter.

Schools clearly aren’t willing to drop the D.A.R.E. curriculum without an alternative in place. Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education, or NOPE, is specifically tailored to combat opioid addiction. NOPE discourages opioid use. Participants are shown videos of funerals and police officers talk to the students with the intent of making them understand that people who are addicted to opioids die. While more relatable than the “this is your brain on drugs” PSA of the 80s, NOPE is problematic in its heavy emphasis on scare tactics.

Another program that looks like a promising replacement is PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience or PROSPER. PROSPER is an intervention program that is introduced to middle schoolers, and the evidence shows that it actually works. Resiliency is a critical component to preventing mental health and substance use problems. Since both are frequently tied to trauma, resiliency is the antidote.

Instead of a zero-tolerance perspective, PROSPER aims to support a holistically healthy adolescence and increase resiliency via strong families. Rather than approach it as a war on drugs, PROSPER’s goal is not to reduce crime, per se, but to reduce risky behavior amongst young people. It is a public health initiative that takes into account the multiple factors that can influence an individual’s journey to drug misuse.

A seven-year follow up study found that students who participated in PROSPER were less likely to engage in substance abuse. According to a 2017 Penn State article, “researchers found a 41 percent reduction in lifetime use of methamphetamine…reductions of lifetime cocaine use and marijuana use of more than 30 percent, and a reduction of prescription drug misuse of 20 percent.” These findings are incredible because they show that PROSPER doesn’t just reduce drug use among students, but it has positive effects that extend long past graduation.

Shatterproof is another evidence-based program working to curb drug use. It is shaped on a non-profit model that engages with all kinds of communities. Their mission is to stop drugs from shattering the lives of families. Unlike NOPE, Shatterproof does not aim to scare students straight. They focus on inspiration and anti-stigma efforts. Shatterproof talks about addiction as a disease and encourages treatment for people who are suffering.

High school drinking and drug use is the lowest it’s been in 15 years, but knowledge about the negative effects of drugs also seems to be on the decline. It’s good news that school-aged kids are holding off on things like drinking; multiple surveys and studies have found that early drinking is linked to a higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. As drug and opioid overdose deaths rise in every state, it’s obvious the problem extends long past high school. Addiction and alcoholism don’t always begin while underage. I didn’t start drinking until my second year in college, and I still became an alcoholic. Some kind of education program needs to be implemented, but it needs to be one that actually works.

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Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.