In 1983, Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates worked with the L.A. public schools to launch an innovative program called D.A.R.E., or Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
D.A.R.E. involved uniformed police officers coming into a classroom telling children about the dangers of drugs and then equipping them with skills to resist drugs, including self-esteem building and emphasizing ways to "just say no" when offered drugs. It is among the most well known programs for educating youth about the dangers of drug use, but it is not without its critics.
There are a wide variety of programs available, and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses can be an important part of determining how best to educate youth to make good decisions about drug use.
A study published in 1999, research conducted by Donald Lynman at the University of Kentucky found that participating in the D.A.R.E. program had no impact on student's decisions to smoke, drink alcohol, or use illegal drugs. A person interviewed by psychologist Tana Dineen reflected, "the kids who were never going to get into drugs anyway thought it was good and those who were going to abuse drugs just did what they were going to do anyway."
In fact, there is a possibility that giving too much information about some drugs can end up increasing a youth's curiosity, and that making a relatively obscure drug seem really prevalent can end up promoting the social pressure to use.
Anti-drug education must be rooted in a proper understanding of what leads teenagers to experiment with drugs, and then confront those factors directly. One such method that seeks to do this is called "Social Norms Marketing." Social Norms Marketing is based on research that reveals that most youth have an artificially inflated perception of how many of their peers drink or use drugs.
By stating the actual, somewhat low statistics, imagined social pressure to drink or use decreases, thus making it less desirable. This is often the opposite approach from other educational programs that have spoken of the dangers and prevalence drug abuse in as strong terms as possible, which may end up simply encouraging drug use by making it seem normal.
Qualities of good programs
One important element of an effective anti-drug is actual youth involvement, through open discussions and role playing. It is a basic pedagogical concept that children learn better by doing, discussing, and thinking for themselves rather than being lectured at.
Educators should using student's creativity and intelligence in helping them think through reasons to avoid drug use. Not everyone uses drugs directly because of "peer pressure," or because they felt forced to experience in order to fit in.
There are many reasons why young people start using drugs or alcohol, whether to cope with stress, to identify with a particular cohort, or simply out of curiosity. Small group discussions that clarify misinformation without prescribing a single right answer can allow youth to form their own reasons and ways to live a drug-free life.
Teachers must also be sensitive to the stresses and anxieties of adolescence, recognizing the appeal of drugs in a stressful environment, and helping individuals think up more positive alternatives. Approaches that emphasize fear-based appeals are often less effective than those that stress more positive reasons to avoid drugs or alcohol.
Dr. Denise Hallfors of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill praises programs listed below as potential programs that engage students on this deeper level, and so are able to actually affect behavior for the better.