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DARE Marks a Decade of Growth and Controversy : Youth: Despite critics, anti-drug program expands nationally. But some see declining support in LAPD.

September 09, 1993|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DARE, the pioneering and controversial anti-drug program invented by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District, celebrates its 10th anniversary today amid warm congratulations for its accomplishments and uncertainty about its future.

Members of Congress have sponsored a resolution commending the founders and backers of DARE, and the program enjoys bipartisan support from California to Washington. It is expanding annually, bolstered by millions of dollars in private contributions and federal help. But DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, also has been scorched by criticism and weakened by what some backers see as tepid support from the current leadership of the LAPD.

It was 10 years ago this month that LAPD officers for the first time ventured into Los Angeles classrooms to teach children DARE's approach to fighting drugs. From the start, some critics faulted the program for its psychological methods and for relying on police officers to teach children about drugs. But supporters far outnumbered skeptics; it spread rapidly beyond the borders of Los Angeles.

Today, 5,200 communities in all 50 states have DARE programs, and more than 5.5 million children this year will learn about drugs through police officers using the DARE curriculum. At home, DARE has been called the first test of community-based policing, a law enforcement notion favored by Police Chief Willie L. Williams that involves bringing police officers into contact with the communities they patrol.

Yet, despite Williams' stated support for DARE, the program's directors have fought increasingly difficult battles to maintain LAPD backing for the drug-fighting program. Once staffed by more than 100 LAPD officers, DARE now is authorized to have 92 officers assigned to it. Only about 65 actually are working with the program full time.

Department sources say DARE suffers from its association with former Chief Daryl Gates, who retired last year after a bruising battle, and from the push to put more officers on patrol. Faced with a shortage of money and police officers, units throughout the LAPD are being raided to put more officers in patrol assignments--a central promise of Mayor Richard Riordan's recent campaign.

Given the political pressure to boost patrols, DARE has been just one of many tempting targets, LAPD officials say.

"A lot of people look at the officers assigned to DARE and say: 'Gee, I sure could use those officers in radio cars,' " said Glenn A. Levant, a recently retired LAPD deputy chief who now runs DARE America. "I call those people Neanderthals."

Neither Levant nor other DARE directors blame Williams for the decline, but they worry that the LAPD is backing away from the program even as other departments are eagerly embracing it.

"The plan is not to let DARE wither and die," Levant said. "But that's what's happening."

While DARE struggles to get resources from the department that gave it birth, it continues to win adherents across the nation. An array of private contributors donate to the program, supplying everything from staff salaries to DARE's modest Westside headquarters, located in a light industrial area of Marina del Rey.

Its corporate backers include some of California's best-known executives, and its national sponsors are equally influential. Partly through their help, DARE has expanded by leaps and bounds, far surpassing the program that even Gates envisioned when he launched it in 1983.

More than 11,000 police officers across the nation currently teach the DARE curriculum, a 17-week program that blends a variety of lesson plans around a single theme: Boosting the self-esteem of students so that they can resist the temptation to use drugs.

Although DARE today is the nation's largest drug education program, its roots were modest. In fact, DARE was born not in an effort to create a national program but rather out of the LAPD's frustrating inability to thwart high school drug use using traditional law enforcement techniques.

"We had 'buy programs' in the schools where undercover officers would buy drugs from students," Gates said. "We kept buying more and more. It was appalling, depressing. I finally said: 'This is crazy. We've got to do something.' "

Gates took his concerns to the school board, where some officials were wary but agreed to explore the idea of a joint LAPD-school district program to combat drug abuse. Ruth Rich, the district's health education specialist, wrote the first DARE curriculum, modeling it on work that had been done at USC. When school opened in September, 1983, the first group of LAPD police officers took DARE to the classroom.

Officers taught the curriculum, a controversial wrinkle in DARE because some critics believed it would be better handled by doctors or teachers. But Gates wanted uniformed officers to do the teaching. Rich agreed.

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