County officials clash over DARE program effectiveness
By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer
Local advocates of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) swear by
their program and support it nearly to the brink of civil disobedience. However, recent
national studies have concluded that DARE has no long-term effect on substance abuse.
A recent funding shortage, which threatened the future of the program
in Blaine County, led to a fervent public protest that the county increase its funding of
the program. Apparently as a result of that protest the county commissioners agreed to do
so, though not to the degree the programs advocates had demanded.
The drug and alcohol education and prevention program focuses on
teaching students to resist social pressures to use those substances. Additionally, the
curriculum, taught by sheriffs deputies, provides information about drugs and
attempts to teach decision-making skills, build self-esteem, and provide healthy
alternatives to drug and alcohol use. The program also acts to combat violence in schools.
A recent study conducted by the University of Kentucky found that the
program produced some initial improvements in young attitudes toward drug and alcohol use,
but that the changes didnt last.
Researchers tracked more than 1,000 sixth-graders who participated in
DARE and found that 10 years later:
· 23 percent smoked half a pack of
cigarettes a day.
· 30 percent used alcohol at least once a
week in the past year.
· 46 percent had used marijuana at least
once in the past year.
· 24 percent had used other drugs, such as cocaine, at least
once in the past year.
The study determined that those percentages were similar to those for
students who did not participate in the program.
Local authorities disagree as to how such studies relate to Blaine
County, which has a percentage of juvenile substance abuse that exceeds state and national
averages, according to a 1997 DARE survey.
But Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling said theres a "huge
difference" between the Blaine County DARE program and national programs.
The standard DARE curriculum consists of police officers going into
schools and conducting one-hour presentations over a 17-week period.
Femling said in an interview that on a national level
"theres only one officer for a couple of dozen schools" and that the
curriculum consists of officers "just doing presentations without any one-on-one
interaction and no building of personal relationships between police officers and
"Our program is more than just curriculum and going to schools and
making presentations. Weve expanded on that in Blaine County.
"Our officers also act as school resource officers. Theyre
in the schools everyday, building relationships with the kids. Theyre greeting the
kids as they come off the bus, in the hallways, talking with kids that have
problems," Femling said. "Thats what DARE is about, connecting with kids
and keeping our schools safe."
But the recent protest in support of the program was organized and led
by parents and adult advocates of the DARE programnot by the kids. Some believe that
the kids whom the effort is intended to help have been caught up in the middle of the
debate and somewhat forgotten and overshadowed by the frenzy.
Blaine County Commissioner Dennis Wright said that despite studies
which show DARE has no long-term effect on drug and alcohol use, many adults have bought
into the program so heavily that theyve become closed minded and are unwilling to
"Its almost become a religion for DARE advocates and parents
that support the program," Wright said.
Wright said that public comment in support of or opposition to the
program during last months controversy was a matter of perspective and situation.
"Parents that called in and said they were in favor had kids in
the fifth and sixth grade who had yet to be influenced by drugs and alcohol," he
However, Wright said, "the parents of middle and high school
studentswhose kids are involved with drugs and alcoholsaid the program
"As long as we wander like a bunch of sheep down this path called
DAREknowing the studies show that when kids hit the 10th or 11th grade, a high
percentage are going to have a problem with drugs and alcoholI wonder if parents and
advocates of DARE are simply trying to make themselves feel better and answer their own
"Lets get to the real facts," Wright said in an
interview. "The DARE program is not for parents, its to help the kids and if
its not working then we have to be willing to consider alternatives."
Wright said supporters of DARE have the mentality that "I know
its not working, but at least were trying to do something about it."
However, Wright said, "a way to do something about the juvenile substance abuse
problem is to be willing to admit the program isnt working and to have the courage
to consider alternatives."
"If youre not willing to look at alternatives," Wright
said, "then youre cheating the very kids youre suppose to be helping and
you become part of the problem."
Wright said it was the countys position to "first try and
logically recognize that we have a problem in our valley with juvenile substance abuse,
second, that we have limited resources to deal with the problem, and third to continue to
search for effective places to direct those resources."
Wright said he wasnt necessarily implying that DARE should be
dropped but that the program needs to be changed and improved and that taking a different
approach should be considered.
"We have to keep searching for a better method until we come up
with a program that shows positive results," Wright said.
"If you want to know if DARE is effective, talk to the kids and
listen to what theyre saying. My son said everyone in school behind him had the DARE
curriculum, yet he asked why the high school is full of druggies."
In light of the obvious substance abuse problem that exists among local
youth and recent studies that question the effectiveness of the DARE program, Femling
acknowledged that "any program can always use improvements."
"Were going to look at the national DARE studies and
consider what we can do locally to improve our program," Femling said in an
According to DARE president and founder, Glenn Levant, the program,
which starts in elementary grades, was designed to be reinforced in middle and high
schools, but that only 60 percent of school districts across the nation carry it to later
grades. DARE advocates nationwide believe this flaw is in part responsible for the
negative results of recent studies.
Femling said the DARE program in Blaine County, which began six years
ago and originally took place only in grade schools, was expanded last year into the
middle schools. He said his department and the DARE committee were looking at the
possibility of expanding the program into the high schools.
"We start building relationships in grade schools and continue
into the middle schools and then kind of just dump kids off into high school,"
Femling also pointed out that DARE is more than just drug prevention.
He said the program also plays a critical role in keeping violence out of schools.
Femling referred to the Columbine massacre and said that dozens of kids
there knew the shootings were going to take place, but that they werent comfortable
about coming forward and telling school officials about the situation.
"By building relationships in our schools between DARE officers
and students, were creating an atmosphere where kids feel comfortable in coming
forward to DARE officers on safety issues," Femling said.
"School violence in this country is not over," Femling said,
"its just starting. We need to keep officers in schools and create positive
relationships with students. The only way to stop tragedies like Columbine from happening
in our schools is to prevent them before they happen."