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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

"There's a gap between the street and the classroom," said Rich, who still oversees the program for the school district. "Police officers are believable on this subject. When it comes to drugs, they're more credible than a teacher."

Putting officers in the classroom also had another benefit for law enforcement, one that underlies the concept of community-based policing. Backers said students would develop positive relationships with police, an otherwise difficult task since most encounters with officers come in stressful situations.

Critics of DARE began raising questions early in its history. Ten years later, they are challenging its methods and its effectiveness with increasing vigor.

"Generally, evaluators have reported that DARE has a positive influence on students' knowledge regarding drugs," a 1991 study by the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago found. "However, the effectiveness of DARE in altering students' drug use behavior has yet to be established. . . . The available findings indicate that DARE either had no behavioral effects or had a significant effect for only a few substances."

A soon-to-be-released study being undertaken by a North Carolina group has found that DARE teaches children about drugs and gives them a more positive outlook toward police. But it does not, researchers in that study found, keep children from using drugs.

William Hansen, an associate professor of public health sciences and one of the authors of the USC program that served as a model for DARE, accuses the program of failing its central mission.

"There's a lot of philosophy that's going to come out about DARE and why it doesn't work," Hansen said. "It doesn't change in kids the things that cause drug use."

A Ft. Collins, Colo., group has gone the furthest in its attack. That group, called Parents Against DARE, protested that the program uses discredited psychological techniques. It recently succeeded in convincing school district officials there that federal law requires parents to give their approval before their children can be put through the program.

That was not enough for Gary Peterson, a Ft. Collins businessman who started Parents Against DARE two years ago.

"I completely pulled my child out of the school system because of this," said Peterson.

Peterson's criticism is rooted in what he says is the fundamental psychological flaw of DARE: the notion that children should be told they have a choice about using drugs. That criticism is echoed by some psychologists.

"Children have a choice about drug use only in the same sense that they have a choice to drive up the off-ramp of Highway 5," said William Coulson, a Northern California psychologist and former member of the Federal Technical Panel on Drug Education Curricula. "They can do that, but it's adult stupidity to teach them that's a legitimate choice."

Coulson and some other psychologists also dispute DARE's assumption that self-esteem combats drug use. In fact, Coulson said, children "don't need to be told they're wonderful, they need to be given direction."

While those critics have taken issue with DARE's methods, the program also has suffered from several highly publicized cases of young people turning in their parents on drug charges. One case in Maine attracted national attention, while others continue to crop up periodically. In 1992, a 12-year-old Canoga Park boy who had just finished DARE called police to report his father for beating his mother and selling marijuana.

Levant has heard all the criticisms, but he is unfazed. He says DARE officers are told not to encourage youngsters to snitch on their parents, and he disputes the studies suggesting that DARE's effect on drug use may be minimal.

"Anytime you've got something that's popular, people will attack it," Levant said.

Rich of the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed. "If I didn't think it had a positive effect on children, I wouldn't have it here," she said.

Moreover, while DARE has drawn criticism, it also has won converts. Councilwoman Rita Walters, who initially saw DARE as a publicity stunt by Gates, says that over the years she has attended various DARE functions and admired what she saw.

"It's difficult to measure the results of a program like this," Walters said. "But it seemed to me to be having some very positive results."

To bolster his case, Levant produces a study of his own, a recent Gallup poll of DARE graduates. According to that study, more than 90% of the young people polled said that DARE helped them avoid drugs and alcohol and deal better with peer pressure.

But DARE backers say the real proof is not in studies or surveys but in the grateful responses of parents, teachers and children nationwide. Even critics concede that DARE is enormously popular, and Levant reels off examples of children and parents who have written or called to express their thanks for the program.

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