The anti-drug program called D.A.R.E. is popular, well-funded, and widespread. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work - and saying so can get you in big trouble.
by Stephen Glass
On January 28, 1991, at 4 p.m., 10-year-old Darrin Davis, of Douglasville, Georgia, returned from school to his suburban home. Both of Darrin's parents were at work, and he let himself in. He immediately went to his parents' bedroom to call his mother, who wouldn't be home for another two hours. After talking to her on the phone, Darrin began searching the bedroom for candy; his parents often hid sweets there. He found none. Instead, after climbing on top of a chair, Darrin saw a white powder on a small makeup mirror. At that point, Darrin would later say, he thought of something he had recently been taught in school. Darrin's fourth-grade class had been visited by a police officer under the auspices of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or DARE, as it is known. One of the things the DARE officer had told Darrin and his classmates was that they should inform the police if they ever saw anyone - including their parents - use drugs. The kids were shown a video that reinforced the point.
Although Darrin had never seen either of his parents use drugs, he decided, based on what he had learned in DARE, that the substance on the mirror was powdered cocaine. So he did what the DARE officer had told him to do: he called 911 and turned in his parents. Two hours later, when the Davises returned home, they were handcuffed and arrested while Darrin watched. A police officer put his hand on Darrin's shoulder, and told the boy he had done "the right thing." Darrin's father spent the next three months in jail, much to Darrin's surprise and dismay. "I thought the police would come get the drugs and tell them that drugs are wrong," the boy told a local reporter. "They never said they would arrest them. It didn't say that in the video." When the sheriff's office told the boy he was too young to visit his dad in jail, Darrin set the neighbors' house on fire, causing $14,000 in damages. "I asked him why he did it," Darrin's mother said. "He said he wanted to be put in jail with his daddy."
As it turned out, the substance on the mirror was not cocaine. The Davises' lawyer says it was a small amount of speed. Both the Davises were charged with simple possession. Ultimately, the Georgia Supreme Court ordered the charges dropped, primarily on the grounds that the police had improperly searched the Davis home. The damage, though, was done. Darrin's telephone call destroyed his family. Heavy media coverage of the 10-year-old who had turned in his own parents ruined the Davises' reputation. Legal fees nearly bankrupted them, and they came close to losing their home. They filed for divorce shortly after the criminal charges were dropped.
In January 1994, James Bovard, a freelance writer, wrote an account of the Davis case for The Washington Post's prestigious Sunday Outlook section. Bovard used the case to criticize DARE for "turning children into informants" in the war on drugs. Although Bovard had called DARE to get the organization's comment, DARE officials had declined to talk more than briefly. Jefferson Morley, an assistant editor at Outlook who handled Bovard's column, edited the piece and faxed the edited copy to Bovard. The piece remained extremely critical of DARE. On the fax, Morley scribbled a note: "Jim: ok?" Bovard called Morley and approved the piece as edited.
On Sunday morning, January 30, Bovard picked up the Post and read his story. He was astonished to read, inserted into the piece and under his byline, six paragraphs that he had not written - that, indeed, he had never seen. The paragraphs ran counter to the thrust of the column, calling the case against DARE "murky." Far worse, the new paragraphs said "there was evidence" Darrin's parents were not only drug users, but "were also involved in drug trafficking, thus putting their child at risk." Not only had the possession charges been dropped against the Davises, but there had never been any evidence presented to show that the Davises were drug dealers. They had never been charged with trafficking, only with possession.
"I was stunned. I didn't know what to say," Bovard explains. "Nothing like this had ever happened before." Bovard investigated, and what he found out stunned him even more: the incorrect information in the added paragraphs had been directly supplied by DARE.
How did this happen? J.W. Bouldin, the Davises' lawyer, says the Post's lawyers told him that DARE had lobbied the newspaper to add the paragraphs. The Post's lawyers told Bouldin that DARE supplied Morley with the information for the six paragraphs and Morley typed it in. Bovard also says that DARE put pressure on the Post. "When they learned more about my story, DARE put on the full-court press," Bovard says. "They wanted to kill this story. It makes sense why."
Morley says it happened slightly differently. He says that after he edited the column he became concerned that DARE's point of view was not represented. He consulted with the Post's lawyers, who agreed with him that he should call DARE and get their side of the story. He telephoned DARE's Los Angeles headquarters and talked to a spokeswoman for the organization. Morley says that he wrote the six paragraphs based on his conversation with the spokeswoman. He admits that the information came directly from DARE and that he never told Bovard he had added it to the column. But he says neither he nor anyone at the Post "kowtowed" to DARE. "This was my f *-up. It was not the Post caving in to DARE," Morley says. "The whole story doesn't make me look very good. I regret, I really regret, any role in spreading the false information.... This was my least finest hour."
Bouldin knew as soon as he read the column that he had a dandy libel case. He called the Post's lawyers and informed them that he was going to sue on behalf of the Davises. "They soon saw they had one very, very big problem on their hands," Bouldin says. Shortly before the Davises' libel suit was to be filed, the Post settled. The settlement included a large cash payment to the Davises. The paper also printed a correction, which cleared the Davises of the drug trafficking accusation and admitted that no evidence connecting them with drug trafficking had ever existed. Bouldin says that the terms of the settlement prohibit him from disclosing just how much the misinformation provided by DARE cost the Post, but he makes it clear that the price was high. "Let's just say this was a very expensive mistake for The Washington Post," he says, the tone of satisfaction clear in his Southern drawl.
DARE spokesman Ralph Lochridge doesn't deny his organization gave the Post false information, and he doesn't apologize, either. "Just because [the Davises] weren't convicted in court doesn't mean they're not guilty of it," Lochridge told me.
The anti-drug and anti-alcohol program called DARE is popular, well-financed and widespread. Started in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. School District, DARE has quickly become the nation's standard anti-drug curriculum. The DARE logo is everywhere: on bumper stickers, duffel bags, Frisbees, even fast-food containers. DARE is the only drug education program specifically sanctioned for funding under the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. This year, the program will receive $750 million, of which some $600 million, according to outside analysts, comes from federal, state and local governments. At the core of the DARE curriculum are seventeen weekly lessons taught in the fifth or sixth grade. The teachers are all uniformed cops trained by DARE. The officers lecture and assign homework on the dangers of drugs, alcohol and gangs. Many schools, like Darrin Davis's, offer a shorter curriculum in every grade before the fifth. Some school districts also participate in supplementary junior high school and high school programs. The Los Angeles-based DARE America, the nonprofit company that develops and sells the DARE curriculum, boasts that cops working with DARE now lecture in 70 percent of the nation's school districts. In 1996, two of the last holdouts, the New York City and Washington, D.C., school districts, signed up for the program.
Most parents know about DARE, and most of them approve of it. So do most politicians, most police officers, most teachers and most journalists. President Clinton has been a fan ever since Chelsea graduated from the Arkansas DARE. "We ought to continue to expand the ... program so that in every grade school in this country there's a DARE officer," he said to cheers at an Orange County campaign rally last October. How many people, after all, are opposed to warning children about the dangers of drugs?
But what most people don't know is that, in the past five years, study after study has shown that DARE does not seem to work. The studies have found that students who go through the program are just as likely to use drugs as those who don't. In fact, the results in one study even show the dreaded boomerang effect: DARE graduates are more likely to use marijuana. Behavioral scientists have begun to question, with increasing vigor, whether DARE is little more than a feel-good scheme of enormous proportions. As one researcher put it: "DARE is the world's biggest pet rock. If it makes us feel good to spend the money on nothing, that's okay, but everyone should know DARE does nothing." None of this is a secret among drug policy experts and reporters who cover drug policy; some of the studies have been available for years. Reason, Kansas City Magazine and USA Today have published substantial stories criticizing the program's effectiveness. But these stories have done nothing to impede DARE's progress, and most parents and educators still believe it works. Why isn't the case against DARE better known? Why, at a time when federal funds are scarce, is it not a public issue that a program which costs the government more than half a billion dollars a year may be a waste of the taxpayers' money?
What happened to James Bovard and to The Washington Post is an illustration of the answer. For the past five years, DARE has used tactics ranging from bullying journalists to manipulating the facts to mounting campaigns in order to intimidate government officials and stop news organizations, researchers and parents from criticizing the program. DARE supporters have been accused of slashing tires, jamming television transmissions and spray-painting reporters' homes to quiet critics. "What you have to understand is that DARE is almost a billion-dollar industry. If you found out that a food company's foods were rotten, they'd be out of business," says Mount Holyoke sociology and criminology professor Richard Moran. "What's now been found out is that DARE is running the biggest fraud in America. That's why they've gone nuts." DARE has become so well-known for the hardball tactics it employs to shut down its critics that drug researchers and journalists have a word for those hushed - they say they've been "Dared."
Glenn Levant, the executive director of DARE, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about DARE's effectiveness and its tactics in squelching bad publicity. Provided, at his request, with written questions, Levant did not reply. DARE spokesman Ralph Lochridge says his organization does not silence researchers. "We don't go after anyone, and DARE doesn't stop critical stories," he says. "It does try to help journalists write balanced pieces." Lochridge says his organization tries to "work" with journalists. "We don't mind criticism, but we want balance. Is your story going to be balanced?"
The story of DARE and its critics starts in Kokomo, Indiana. Fifty-three miles north of Indianapolis, Kokomo is an auto factory town of 45,000 people in the heart of the state's rural and Republican midsection. The city hall operator boasts that Kokomo was the birthplace of stainless steel. In 1987, it also became the first Indiana city to sign up for the DARE program. That year, school officials invited two sociology professors at the local branch of Indiana University to run an experiment to see how well the program worked. Everyone expected glowing results, and hoped the positive study would accelerate DARE's implementation elsewhere. The research team studied 1987's fifth-grade class in Kokomo through 1994, its last year in high school. They also studied the high school class of 1991, which had made its way through the school system prior to DARE's implementation, and had never been exposed to the program. Sociology professors Earl Wysong and Richard Aniskiewicz measured drug use among the students in both the 1994 graduating class and the 1991 class. They also measured DARE's secondary objectives: boosting self-esteem and reducing susceptibility to peer pressure. Wysong and Aniskiewicz were careful to measure the students' drug use with a multi-part questionnaire, which included DARE's own test as well as tests commonly used by psychologists. They found that the level of drug use among kids who had gone through DARE was virtually identical to the level among kids who had not. This means that in every category of drug use tested - lifetime usage, how recently the students had used drugs, how often they had used drugs and the grade in which they started using drugs - the results were "very similar" for both the DARE alumni and the non-DARE students. So similar, in fact, that the differences were within the margin of error. Moreover, students in both groups rated the availability of drugs nearly identically. In fact, the only statistical difference between the groups was that more DARE graduates said they had used marijuana in the past thirty days and the past year than non-DARE alumni. Wysong and Aniskiewicz concluded that "DARE exposure does not produce any long-term prevention efforts on adolescent drug use rates."
What about the more touchy-feely results? Again, the sociologists found no statistical differences. Using questionnaires to examine self-esteem and "locus of control," a common psychology test that measures susceptibility to peer pressure, they found numbers so similar for the two groups that any differences were again within the margin of error. They wrote that self-esteem and peer pressure are "two more areas where we can see no long-term effects resulting from DARE exposure." "That's all, that's it," says Wysong. "It's simple. There was no difference."
But Wysong and Aniskiewicz also found out what other critics of DARE would discover: no one - not parents, not educators and certainly not DARE officials - wanted to hear the bad news. Kokomo's parents, teachers and school board latched on to the study, but Wysong says they missed the point. "I told them the study shows DARE doesn't work," he says, but no one listened. "So what they did was implement drug testing." Since last April, the high school has required every student who leaves the building at lunch, participates in extracurricular activities or drives to school to sign a waiver. The waiver allows the school to pull them out of class at any time and force them to take a drug test. On average, forty-five students are tested each week. "That wasn't what our study recommended," Wysong says. "After our study it became very clear they kept DARE for public relations reasons." The school board has not renewed any studies on the local DARE program.
Even after Wysong and Aniskiewicz published their results, DARE continued to boast that an earlier California study - in fact, the first study ever done on DARE - showed that kids who went through the program accepted drugs less often than kids who had not gone through the program. The data also showed that DARE alumni reported using drugs less often. This study, however, did not ring true to many researchers because it had no pre-test. In other words, students were only surveyed after graduating from DARE. Without measuring drug use before DARE, it's difficult to know whether or not the students' behavior had changed. What is more, the study last examined its subjects as seventh-graders, meaning it never measured DARE's long-term impact. "If you don't know where your base is you really don't know anything," laughs an Ivy League biologist who examined the methodology of the California study. "My kid's science fair project with plants and swinging lights was more rigid than this."
Another drug policy expert who has questioned DARE is Dick Clayton, a widely respected drug abuse researcher at the University of Kentucky. In 1996, Clayton published, in the journal Preventive Medicine, the most rigorous long-term study ever performed on DARE. Starting in September 1987, Clayton surveyed schoolchildren in all of the thirty-one elementary schools in Lexington, Kentucky. The schools were randomly assigned to receive the DARE curriculum or to receive "no treatment." Students were tested before going through the DARE program, immediately afterward and again each year through the spring of 1992. Clayton's team found that any results from DARE were extremely short-lived. "Here it is in layman's terms: DARE is supposed to reduce drug use. In the long term, it does not," Clayton says. Just before and after Clayton's release of the two-year data, more studies quietly began popping up with similar results. In total, Clayton wrote in the 1996 book Intervening with Drug-Involved Youth, at least fifteen studies were conducted. "Although the results from various studies differ somewhat, all studies are consistent in finding that DARE does not have long-term effects on drug use," he wrote. Among those studies was a 1990 Canadian government report showing DARE was less effective than anyone imagined. The program, the Canadians reported, had no effect on cutting abuse of any drug from aspirin to heroin. (The Canadians were studying DARE because the program was becoming more popular abroad. Today, Lochridge says, DARE is used in forty-nine foreign countries.)
As the number of debunking studies grew, something else also grew: the number of researchers getting Dared. Take the case of Daniel, a young professor at an Illinois college. He asked that his last name not be used, since he is up for tenure within the next two years and nervous about adverse publicity. Daniel says he wants to study behavioral programs that have political impact. While he suspects that to improve his chances for tenure he should study the behavior of lab animals, he's fascinated by "real world" problems. "That's why Clayton's study appealed to me," he says. "I thought here was a chance where people like me can make a difference." Daniel designed and performed a study of college freshmen. All of the freshmen were in-state students, but only some had attended DARE. Once again, Daniel's study found no meaningful difference in drug use between students who had gone through DARE and students who hadn't. He did find, however, that DARE graduates were slightly more likely to drink alcohol regularly for the purpose of getting drunk. Over lunch one day, Daniel, proud of what he thought was an "important finding for the Illinois school system," showed the data to a colleague in a different department. "That was the biggest mistake of my career," Daniel says. "That's right - even bigger than sleeping through an oral exam in graduate school." Daniel says that, within a week, a local DARE official called him at home and asked to see the data. Daniel says he freely showed the information to him. That, he says, resulted in a "big argument with lots of yelling." Two weeks later Daniel says he received a call from his department chairman. The chairman told him that the local DARE official had complained that Daniel was offering kids marijuana as part of his study. Daniel says the allegations are false, but that he immediately stopped work on the DARE study, and returned to lab animals. "That could have been, and still might be, a career killer," Daniel says. "DARE has made it so I will never venture out of the lab again."
While it's not possible to say exactly how many researchers have been Dared, it is clear from talking to academics in the relevant fields that there are a number of them. It's common knowledge among researchers that doing DARE studies can ruin a promising career. Wysong and David W. Wright, a Wichita State University professor, wrote in Sociological Focus that the DARE researchers they had interviewed "asked to remain anonymous out of fear of political reprisals and to protect their careers." Interviews with drug researchers support this statement. An author of one prominent paper says he no longer studies DARE. "I needed my life back. I'm in research. My wife and I couldn't take endless personal attacks," he told me. "You want to know why I stopped researching DARE? Write your article and you'll see." Another researcher who was critical of DARE says he became so unpopular among fellow professors he went into the private sector. "If you fight DARE, they make you out to look like you want kids to smoke pot. I thought it was my duty to say the emperor is not wearing any clothes," he says. "It was stupid of me to think I could fight them. Everyone told me I couldn't, but I tried. Here [in the private sector] I can start over." The researcher says after he published his study, someone etched the words "kid killer" and "drug pusher" into the paint of his car.
The extent of DARE's ability to muzzle critical studies can be seen in the treatment of the most definitive test of the DARE program ever conducted. In 1991, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) - the research wing of the Justice Department - hired the prestigious Research Triangle Institute (RTI) to analyze the studies on DARE and determine the bottom line. Initially, DARE supported the "meta-analysis." In a 1992 letter, it urged state groups to work with RTI, saying it "will give us ammunition to respond to critics who charge that DARE has not proven its effectiveness."
"Everything was going along just fine," explains a researcher who worked on the RTI analysis and who asked that his name not be used so he wouldn't get "any more nasty, screeching phone calls" in the middle of the night. "That is, until we started finding DARE just simply didn't work. Then all hell broke loose."
In 1993, RTI presented its preliminary results at a San Diego drug education conference. According to Sociological Focus, a DARE supporter immediately responded by urging RTI to call off the research, saying: "If [DARE] fails, it will be making a statement about all prevention programs." After the conference, DARE launched an all-out war to sink the study. An internal memo from the July 5, 1993, meeting of DARE's advisory board offers evidence that Levant tried to squelch the study. The memo contains the minutes of Levant's speech. Levant criticized an advance copy of the RTI study. The minutes summarize Levant: "The results of this project are potentially damaging to DARE. DARE America has spent $41,000 in trying to prevent widespread distribution of what is considered to be faulty research." The minutes also noted that "DARE America has instituted legal action," aimed at squelching the RTI study. "The action has had some positive results," the minutes reported. "It has resulted in prevention of a second presentation by RTI. Legal action is intended to prevent further public comment until completion of academic review." Lochridge did not return a phone message asking for comment on the memo, and asking whether government funds had been used to stop the government from distributing a government-funded study questioning the efficacy of a government-funded program.
In the past, DARE had been unable to effectively refute its critics on scientific grounds, and its claims rang correspondingly weak. "They must not know how to measure things," maintained an Indiana DARE official about the Kokomo research at a local community agency. "If they could just see the kids' faces, they'd know how much good it's doing." Herbert Kleber, a Columbia University professor who heads DARE's scientific advisory board, says the RTI study was flawed. "It used the old DARE curriculum, which had already been substantially revised," Kleber says. "No, the new curriculum has never been examined."
So this time Levant turned to grass-roots pressure. According to one Justice Department official, Levant arranged for DARE supporters to flood the Justice Department with phone calls. Nationwide, many teachers, principals, DARE officers and parents believe in the program with almost religious devotion. In local debates, they have always been more than willing to make phone calls, write letters and hold forums to support DARE. This time, the callers stayed "on message," the official says, speaking almost as if from a script. "They'd call and tell us if we published the study, DARE would be sunk and millions of kids would get hooked," says the official. "Whenever we'd say the research looked mathematically good, they'd say, `there's more at stake here than good statistics. Can you live with that?'"
In September 1994, RTI finished the lengthy report. It concluded that, while DARE was loved by teachers and participants, it had no effect on drug use. It also went one step further, a step that DARE feared most of all. "What got [RTI] in the most hot water is that they said other programs work better," says Moran, the Mount Holyoke sociologist. In other words, RTI found that DARE is not merely a failure in itself, but crowds out money for programs that actually keep kids off drugs. RTI published a lengthy bibliography of some of the other programs. Kleber says the alternatives RTI looked at, which he calls "boutique programs," were only examined in highly controlled environments.
Levant upped the ante. Congressmen and mayors began calling the National Institute of Justice. The politicians stressed two messages: the curriculum had changed since the study, making it irrelevant; and the public did not want to hear criticism of an anti-drug program widely regarded as successful. The Justice Department official says the "phone rang off the hook."
One month later, for the first time in memory, the Justice Department refused to publish a study it had funded and successfully peer-reviewed. "We're not trying to hide the study," Ann Voit, an NIJ spokeswoman, told USA Today. "We just do not agree with one of the major findings." A puzzling statement, since NIJ hired RTI in the first place because it trusted them to evaluate DARE impartially. Still more puzzling is that even as late as six months after the San Diego conference, NIJ sent RTI memos praising the study. One note from Laurie Bright, NIJ's program manager, said the "methodology appears to be sound and DARE representatives did not offer any specific flaws ... [it] presented findings in a very fair and impartial light." Eventually, Jeremy Travis, who heads the NIJ, stepped in. He publicly reiterated that Justice had not caved under DARE's pressure, explaining that NIJ's independent reviewers unanimously recommended against publishing the report. Not so, according to one reviewer. William DeJong, a Harvard lecturer, told USA Today: "They must be misremembering what I said." Two of the independent reviewers who examined the report in March 1994 recommended that more analysis be done. But both urged the publication and wide dissemination of the executive summary of the report, and one praised the crucial section that analyzed DARE's efficacy as "well done." NIJ still has not approved the study, but will sell it upon request.
The same day Justice refused the study, The American Journal of Public Health - a highly respected academic journal - accepted it. It had conducted its own peer review and found the paper to be worthy. The Justice Department official says this infuriated Levant and that DARE tried to prevent the journal from publishing the study. While no one at Public Health would comment on Levant and DARE, two editors at the journal said that it stands by editor Sabine Beisler's comment of October 1994: "DARE has tried to interfere with the publication of this. They tried to intimidate us." When NIJ learned the journal was going to publish the study, it issued its own two-page summary. The summary oddly heralded DARE's popularity, but virtually ignored the thrust and bulk of the study, which showed DARE doesn't curtail drug use.
Today, the researchers who worked on parts of the RTI study remain thoroughly spooked by their experience. Two researchers at RTI, four at universities and two now in the private sector refused to talk more than briefly about the study. All but one said they were scared of losing their jobs. Three told me that their superiors had been contacted by politicians. "A state representative called my boss and asked if my research was really in the best interest of the community," said one state university professor. "Thank God my boss said `yes.' I don't know if even tenure would stand up to that."
Dare's hardball approach is as well-known among journalists who have attempted stories on the organization as it is among academic researchers. James, a television news producer who does not want his last name used for this story, says that ever since he was Dared he doesn't have any doubts about retaliation. Several months ago, James, who works for a small Missouri station, produced and aired a short editorial criticizing DARE. In more than a decade of local news, it is the only item he has ever regretted running. After that show aired, so many kids called James so often at home to read him lessons from the DARE workbook that he was forced to unlist his telephone number. "You bet I was Dared," James says. "The calls came and on and on. I had to hear about so-and-so is offered a joint, but she says `no.' I couldn't take it." Two callers told James that their DARE officer encouraged them to call his house at strange hours. After that, James's house was attacked with graffiti messages like "crack user inside" so many times, he moved to an apartment building. The local police, who run the local DARE program, spent no time looking for the vandals, James says. After a math teacher asked his son how "the pot-head dad" was doing, he transferred his kid to a boarding school. And, when the owner of a local diner asked him to stop coming to lunch, since other customers were leaving when he walked in, his wife took to calling him "Small-town Salman," after Satanic Verses author-in-hiding Salman Rushdie. James says he phoned Levant and asked him to "please call them off," but Levant never returned the message. "This may sound as if I'm being extreme, but I'm not. I went to Vietnam and that was less stressful," James says with a shaking voice. "There, the people I love weren't always being attacked. And this time, I know I'm on the right side."
In the past year, NBC's newsmagazine "Dateline" has become the most prominent news organization to be Dared. Starting in September 1995, "Dateline" producers began initial research on a hard-hitting story about how DARE doesn't work. They interviewed researchers who had concluded that DARE was a failure and students who couldn't remember the lessons. A "Dateline" camera crew also flew to Indianapolis, where an affluent, mostly Republican suburb was debating whether to keep DARE. For the past year, the school district had monitored a small pilot program. More than 100 parents showed up to the meeting and, according to those who were there, the majority vocally opposed DARE. According to a longtime NBC News employee, the show was scheduled to run on April 9, 1996 - the day before National DARE Day. The following account of what then transpired has been corroborated by two additional NBC sources; essential details of it have also been confirmed by a DARE source and a Justice Department source.
Last March, Levant heard about the planned "Dateline" show. According to the NBC News employee - who does not work on "Dateline" but has read a series of letters between Levant and NBC officials - Levant wrote an "attack letter" to Jack Welch. Welch is the chief executive officer of General Electric, NBC's parent company. The letter called the segment a "journalistic fraud." Levant accused "Dateline" of "staging" the Indiana meeting. Still under the shadow of an infamous episode in which "Dateline" was accused of rigging trucks to explode, the NBC employee says Levant's accusations sent "Dateline"'s staff into a "whirlwind of activity." But Levant's accusation was a "flat-out lie - no ifs, no buts about it, a lie as low as it goes," says Betsy Paul, then the Parent Teacher Organization president of the Indiana school district. "I don't know how to say this strongly enough. I will tell you on any witness stand with God as my judge.... We had scheduled the meeting for at least a week before `Dateline' said they were coming out here." Paul says David McCormick, NBC's senior producer for broadcast standards, called her. McCormick asked her if she had brought in "ringers" to stack the meeting against DARE. "And that was the biggest bunch of bologna I've ever heard," Paul says. "DARE just doesn't like that parents here figured out they didn't work." As further proof, Paul points out that this year DARE was eliminated in her school district and replaced with a locally developed program. "[Levant is] a big liar because if we stacked that meeting, if it didn't accurately reflect how this community thinks, then why did the school board eliminate DARE this year?" she says. "I'll say it again, he lied, and once more he lied."
Levant's letter to Welch contained other untruths, claims the NBC News employee. In the letter, Levant alleges "Dateline" producers would only interview him on the day his wife was receiving a bone marrow treatment for leukemia. Not true, according to the NBC News employee: "Dateline" offered Levant "several" date options. Levant also alleged "Dateline" staffers were interrogating kids in dark rooms like "old war movies." In truth, "Dateline" cameramen had turned off the overhead lights when they interviewed DARE participants because they were using their own lighting, which is standard practice. While the NBC employee says McCormick defended "Dateline" in a response to Levant, the story was put on hold. "DARE scared NBC's upper brass," the NBC employee says. "The story was, and is, solid. The people on it are some of the best in the business, but we did not want to look like we were going after a program that keeps kids off drugs. You can imagine that's a very unpopular position with G.E. So it was put on hold." David Corvo, the NBC vice president that clears "Dateline" episodes before they air, says, "There is no controversy about the program at NBC." He says all delays occurred because he felt the segment needed more reporting. "No way," the NBC News employee says. "That piece was solid in every way. Sure, you can always get another interview, and they did, but even before that it was better than much of what we air."
Then, in a September 1996 issue of TV Guide, NBC placed the following announcement: "`Dateline NBC': A Len Cannon report on the DARE program in schools. Its effects are `statistically insignificant,' says segment producer Debbie Schooley. `Research overwhelmingly shows no long-term effect on drug use.' The report visits schools in suburban Indianapolis."
According to the NBC employee, the TV Guide announcement killed the episode again. Dozens of DARE supporters, including Levant, called NBC. According to the employee, this time he made veiled threats of suing "Dateline." Despite the listing, the show didn't air. Corvo maintains that NBC "did not kill" the story and says if any lawsuit threats were made, they were not taken seriously. He maintains that NBC sent TV Guide the listing several weeks in advance, but when the date arrived, the piece still wasn't ready.
Next, the biggest gun in the drug wars tried to sink the segment once and for all. In mid-September, the White House's drug czar General Barry McCaffrey stepped in. "Dateline" had already interviewed McCaffrey for the segment. During the interview, McCaffrey ridiculed the research against DARE, but a Justice staffer says he did a "very poor" job refuting the mounds of evidence. Corvo won't comment on McCaffrey's interview, beyond saying the drug czar disputed the evidence against DARE.
On September 20, 1996, Donald Maple, a spokesperson for McCaffrey's office, wrote to "Dateline"'s executive producer. The letter asked "Dateline" not to use the taped interview with McCaffrey. Maple wrote that he feared the interview would serve "`Dateline''s purpose of painting DARE in a bad light." The NBC employee says pulling the McCaffrey interview might have dealt a "death blow" to the show. NBC's McCormick responded to Maple that the show's producer had written McCaffrey a letter before the interview telling him the purpose of the interview was to discuss research on DARE's effectiveness. While the network did not promise to cut McCaffrey's interview, the NBC employee explains, "at some point this story is much more trouble than it's worth." Maple says writing this kind of letter to a news organization is "uncommon," and he had never done it for McCaffrey before. But he says "Dateline" treated McCaffrey unfairly.
The show was rescheduled one more time, for Tuesday, February 4. That time slot - right after the president's State of the Union address - is commonly considered to be a "death slot." Clinton's speeches are renowned for running long, killing whatever television segment is planned to run next. And, that night, the segment did not run. As expected, Clinton's speech ran longer than scheduled and "Dateline" ran a show focusing on the O.J. Simpson verdict. "This system has worked. This show has not been killed. Whoever says that is out of the loop," Corvo says, adding that he has now cleared it to air. As of February 10, though, the segment had not been rescheduled. Corvo says it will be rescheduled when the executive producer of "Dateline"returns from vacation.
And researchers and reporters are not the only ones getting Dared. Some parents who question the program also say they've been strong-armed. In the San Juan Islands northwest of Seattle is a small town called Friday Harbor. There, dozens of parents have joined together in a group called San Juan Parents Against DARE. According to Andrew Seltser, the group's founder, nearly all of the members want drug education in the schools; they just don't believe the DARE program works. In August, Seltser's group collected more than 100 signatures on a petition asking the local school board to review the effectiveness of DARE. The debate about DARE overtook the small community, and became a matter of intense passion, with local DARE supporters raging against the parents who were challenging the program. In September, the local school board announced it would review concerns about DARE.
Then an odd thing happened. On October 7, 1996, the "CBS Evening News" aired a short segment that presented information critical of DARE. No one in Friday Harbor saw that segment, though. Thirty seconds into the story, Friday Harbor's screens went black. Randy Lindsey, the station manager for the local cable station, says when he watched a videotape of that night's news "it looks like someone pulled the plug." Lindsey can't explain the blackout. Friday Harbor, he says, often has problems receiving television signals due to sun spots. But sun spot interference, he says, normally distorts the screen differently. Seltser's group says they believe the program was jammed by DARE supporters since it came in the heat of the debate. And some Friday Harbor DARE supporters aren't denying it. One prominent local DARE supporter says it's "not important" whether or not the show was jammed. "Look, I'm not going to answer the question as to whether or not I know who jammed it. Hell, it might have been me," he says, asking that his name not be used. "What I am going to tell you is that TV program may have stopped DARE in Friday Harbor, which means more kids here would be on drugs."
Dare's public response to studies critical of the program has been to dismiss the studies as irrelevant. DARE says the studies are based on an old curriculum that may not have worked, but that the program now uses a redesigned curriculum that does work. The problem with the old curriculum, DARE officials say, was that DARE classes were not interactive enough; under the new curriculum, the classes are much more so. But this seems debatable, judging from a recent DARE class conducted by Detective Rick Myers at Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. Myers, a big man who looks very much like a cop, visits Barcroft's fifth-graders every Thursday to lead them in the DARE way. One week's lesson was about resisting peer pressure. Myers's lesson lasted about forty-five minutes. All but six minutes were spent on a lecture by Myers. To be sure, Myers used interactive role play during those six minutes, but researchers question the value of such role-playing as set out by the DARE curriculum.
For the first scene, Myers chose two kids: a brown-haired boy who was so nervous that he wobbled when he stood, and a tall girl who was so self-confident that she bowed when she got to the front of the room. Myers whispered the script to the two children and told them to face each other.
"There is a party on Saturday night at some person's house," the girl said matter-of-factly.
The boy said nothing.
"The people there, they will be drinking things that have [now louder and more slowly] al-co-hol."
The boy looked at the ground.
"I said, `The people will be drinking [very loudly and very slowly] al-co-hol.'"
"No," peeped the boy.
Kindly, but firmly, Myers lectured the boy. "Posture. Eye contact. Posture. Eye contact," Myers told him. "You need to be confident. You're doing the right thing."
Take two. The girl said her first line. The boy said: "Oh." Myers shouted: "Posture. Eye contact." The girl said her second line. The boy stood straighter, looked the girl briefly in the eye, and said very quickly: "No thank you, I don't take alcohol. I prefer juice and milk." Myers led everyone in a round of applause. At one of the back tables, a thuggish-looking kid sat regarding this little scene with frank scorn. "He's supposed to say that? That won't work. He'd get the shit beat out of him."
For another scene, Myers chose a small girl with wide eyes and scraggly brown hair. She seemed a little nervous, but excited to have been chosen. Myers whispered the instructions into her ear. They faced off, standing about ten feet from each other. Myers walked up to the girl. "Hey, do you want to buy a joint?" he said. She replied, almost inaudibly, "No." Myers put his face close to hers. "Come on, wanna buy it?"
"No, thank you," she whispered.
Now, waving his finger in her face, Myers shouted: "Why not? Come on, buy it!"
The little girl, backed against the windows, said, again, "No." Myers led the class in a round of applause.
Drug researchers interviewed about Myers's scenes are dismissive. "That role play is absurd. If the kids learn anything at all from it, they learn not to buy drugs from police officers," one researcher says. "Making it more interactive means making it more like real life. This is not useful. Fun, maybe. Useful? Nope."
And Myers's class is typical. When I asked him if other DARE instructors did it differently, he was adamant in response. "No. The great thing about this program is that everyone in the country is trained the same way," Myers told me. "We are told to go exactly by the book. There is no room for modifying the program. No way. It's the same everywhere."
The claim that DARE's curriculum is changing and maturing seems to be more a matter of tactics than anything else. A longtime California instructor who recently retired, and who told me that the curriculum has not in fact changed much at all, conceded that saying the curriculum was in constant flux did have an obvious strategic benefit. Experts agree. Wysong and Wright wrote in Sociological Focus that if DARE is portrayed as a constantly evolving program it can't ever be studied and therefore can't ever fail. "Thus DARE is protected from criticism and remains `forever young,'" they wrote. "In fact, in the view of DARE stakeholders, this is as it should be, because the program cannot be allowed to fail: the stakes are simply too high."
In fact, the most controversial part of the program - the DARE box - has remained unchanged despite years of criticism about this systematic attempt to encourage children to rat out the grown-ups around them, including their own parents. After the first class, the students, following DARE instructions, fashion a shoe box into a colorful mailbox, often decorated with DARE stickers. Each week from then on, for the entire seventeen weeks, students are encouraged to write anonymous notes asking any question they want. They are also allowed to accuse people of using or selling drugs or committing sexual abuse. These accusatory notes may also be anonymous. At the end of every DARE class, the officer reads the questions out loud. The officer does not read the accusatory notes to the class, but those notes are referred to the appropriate school and police investigative units for action. As James Bovard pointed out, Darrin Davis is not an isolated case. DARE students have fingered their parents in Maryland, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. In 1991, a 10-year-old told a Colorado 911 operator, "I'm a DARE kid," and urged the police to arrest his parents for marijuana possession. After his parents were arrested, the cop assigned to his school publicly praised him.
Parents and scientists in dozens of states have attacked the DARE box, saying that it reminds them of Stalinists rewarding kids for ratting on their parents. Lochridge, DARE's spokesman, dismisses their fears, saying it's mostly "urban myths." "Officers, as part of their training," he adds, "are taught not to elicit information about the [students'] personal lives." Lochridge says students are not encouraged to make accusations. But, according to one University of Illinois study, an accusation is made in 59 percent of all DARE classes. And while that number may be high, three Washington, D.C., area DARE cops interviewed said a DARE box note accused someone of using or selling drugs in at least one-third of their classes. All three cops said they "didn't discourage" their students from making accusations. Lochridge maintains the cops are just doing their job. "I don't know of any state which doesn't have laws requiring us to investigate any accusations of sexual abuse or drugs," he says.
In the end, DARE has an answer that trumps all. Even if there is some truth to charges that DARE doesn't work, what this means is that we need ... more DARE. "Well, if you teach people fractions or a foreign language, it's going to erode unless you reinforce it," Lochridge explains. "So the answer is more DARE. Kids need to get it more." And doubtless they will, whether it does them any good or not. (Copyright 1997, The New Republic)