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Current D.A.R.E. program brings speculation of effectiveness in schools

by Molly Quinn, ’15, and Hannah Benson, ’15

Red Solo cups freckle the carpet. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air of the dimly lit room. Sleepy bodies sink into couch cushions.

Fifteen-year-old Mary* was wading through the wreckage when she stumbled across a clump of strangers on a couch. They were huddled around a photo frame that had several lines of a white powdery substance cut up on the top.

A member of the group asked her if she would like to try. Mary said yes.

It was the only time Mary tried cocaine.

“It didn’t live up to the hype,” she said.

Like many high school students, Mary was introduced to drugs at a young age. She was 12 when she got drunk for the first time and 13 when she first smoked marijuana. Mary, however, does not believe alcohol and marijuana were the forerunners to her cocaine use.

“I don’t think soft drugs lead to hard drugs,” Mary said. “Everyone goes through a period of experimentation, and mine was prolonged because I happened to be around people where hard drug use was normal.”

With the ever growing prevalence of hard drugs, like cocaine, at UAHS, the effectiveness of the mainstream and widely implemented D.A.R.E. program is being called into question.


Since its founding in 1983, D.A.R.E. has preached its mission statement: ‘Teaching students good decision-making skills to help them lead safe and healthy lives.’ Yet this is rarely the case.

Despite being the nation’s most popular substance-abuse prevention program, the D.A.R.E. program has failed to change with the times—gaining a reputation of being an ineffective primary drug prevention program for elementary and middle school students.

For students in Upper Arlington, D.A.R.E. surfaces for the first time in the fifth grade and is followed by a refresher course during eighth grade Life Skills.

As a middle school student at St. Agatha, Mary took the compulsory Drug Abuse Resistance Education course twice before transferring to UAHS; however, she found the program to have little success.

“You change so much from the time you’re 10 to the time you’re presented with opportunities for drug use,” Mary said. “Plus, drug-use is so normalized in pop culture and society that I think D.A.R.E. works about as well as abstinence-only sex education.”

Mary did not find D.A.R.E. effective.

“When I was taking D.A.R.E., I thought it was kind of dumb,” Mary said. “There wasn’t much information. It was just a cop saying ‘Don’t do drugs’ for a couple weeks and a workbook.”

Senior Emma Dorfman also went through the D.A.R.E. program in both fifth and eighth grades. She believes the D.A.R.E. program is admirable, but not the deciding factor in whether or not a student uses drugs.

“[There are] a lot of factors behind drug use like family life, social circle and even mental health that are stronger than a program we go through in elementary school,” Dorfman said. “If you’re at a party where all of your friends are drinking and they seem like they’re having a good time, you’re not going to be thinking about how the D.A.R.E. officer told you not to do drugs in the fifth grade.”

Peer pressure is more powerful than D.A.R.E., Dorfman added.

“The fear of missing out on something is too strong,” Dorfman said. “It has more of an impact than D.A.R.E. does.”

By 1994, D.A.R.E. was the most popular school-based drug prevention program, popping up in all 50 states and six foreign countries.

According to a 2012 study, about 60 percent of US school districts have eliminated D.A.R.E. since the mid-2000s. With the recent cancellation of the program in Franklin County school districts, such as Pickerington county’s 2011 dismissal of the program, the effectiveness of D.A.R.E. in UA Schools is being called into question.

The U.S. Department of Education, as of 1998, prohibits schools from spending federal funding on D.A.R.E. due to evidence proving the program to be ineffective in reducing alcohol and drug-use.

Sgt. Don Wilson, the President of the D.A.R.E Association of Ohio, says the recent controversy is undeserved, and that the reason many school districts ditched D.A.R.E. is due to lack of funding.

“I cannot speak for Pickerington schools, but any schools or sheriffs that I have talked to regarding their reason for shelving their program has been for financial reasons only,” Wilson said. “Each police agency made it very clear they were saddened by their decision to move away from a very successful program, but money needed to be spent on road patrols before prevention would be restored.”

D.A.R.E.’s zero-tolerance drug policy has been subject to much criticism. Frequently cited as one of the main reasons D.A.R.E is ineffective, the policy is criticized as being unrealistic. Once children see friends or family members using drugs such as alcohol, marijuana or tobacco with no immediate consequences, they ignore legitimate information about drugs and alcohol.

Wilson, however, believes that a zero-tolerance policy is acceptable towards drug and alcohol abuse.

“In regards to illegal drugs, I think everyone promotes zero-tolerance,” Wilson  said. “In regards to alcohol and other legal drugs, the program promotes the need to understand what these drugs can do if you abuse them. Abuse [means] allowing a drug to take over you.”

D.A.R.E. has also faced criticism for not changing with the times. Fortunately, D.A.R.E. has begun to introduce new facets to its program, most famously “Keepin’ it REAL.” Unveiled in 2013, Keepin’ it REAL revolves around true stories of teenage drug abuse and addiction.

According to a study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, D.A.R.E. had “no statistically significant long-term effect on youth illicit drug use.” Another study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that D.A.R.E. has “small effects on drug-use” and is “significantly” less successful at preventing drug use than other programs, such as Narconon, PACT360 and Across Ages.

Mary believes drug-use at UAHS is an issue, but that students are well-informed of the consequences.

“I think drug-use is a problem, but I think most people know about the drugs they’re doing—they just don’t care,” Mary said.

Dorfman disagrees.

“I have friends who drink and do drugs, but there aren’t a lot of instances where I’ve thought it was a problem,” Dorfman said. “I don’t define a ‘problem’ as occasional drinking like I think some people do; it’s more if you’re actually addicted and it affects your life outside the instances when you consume the drugs.”

Falling Early

In the past year, rumors have taken flight of outrageous anti-drug precautions at Hastings Middle School, including talk of seventh grade students being expelled for smoking cigarettes on school grounds, full locker searches with police dogs at hand and a ban on water bottles in the fear that they contain clear liquor.

Jones Middle School Principal Jason Fine denies the rumors.

“Neither Hastings nor Jones [have] outlawed water bottles or implemented a locker search program. What we are doing is continuing to work with students to help them understand that decisions made today can have a long-term impact on their lives,” Fine said.  “We want them to have the confidence and the skills they need to face the challenges of adolescence so they can enjoy the bright future that lies ahead.”

Hastings Middle School Assistant Principal Jim Buffer denies widespread use of drugs and alcohol at his school.

“In the past two years, we have had occasional issues where students have been in possession of electronic cigarettes,” Buffer said. “We have used those instances as an opportunity to educate our students and their parents.”

Buffer believes D.A.R.E. has made a positive impact on Hastings parents and students.

“As a school community, we utilize numerous resources, including D.A.R.E., to educate our students about unsafe behavior,” Buffer said. “My personal experience with D.A.R.E. at Hastings has been very positive.”

With the intermittent drug abuse problems at both Hastings and Jones middle schools, concern is increasing about the use of drugs ‘spreading down’ and abuse starting at a younger age.

“Everything is occurring earlier with the introduction of the computer. Our kids are getting exposed to so many vices younger and younger thanks to this marvel,” Wilson said. “We have taken valuable time in reaching out to parents regarding the need to monitor what they are exposed to on-line and on television.”

Though Buffer does not believe a trend of drug use starting earlier exists, he is concerned with the popularity of e-cigarettes and the impression that they are harmless.

“I have no firsthand information to lead me to believe that students are using drugs earlier than before,” Buffer said. “I do worry about the e-cigarettes and the perception that they are somehow ‘safe.’ I also worry that their use, like tobacco products, will lead to further experimentation.”

Wilson states that e-cigarettes are becoming an issue, as the D.A.R.E. program has inadequate materials to teach children about this matter.

“E-cigarettes are a problem with many districts as they are new and education is lacking on this subject,” Wilson said.

The concern over the use of e-cigarettes relates to the gateway drug theory, which states that the use of less harmful drugs—typically marijuana—can lead to the use of hard drugs in the future.

Buffer believes the theory is true.

“One could logically assume that the use of cigarettes, alcohol and other substances in middle school provides a gateway into the use of other more dangerous substances,” Buffer said.

Wilson states that earlier research confirms the gateway drug theory.

“Tobacco, alcohol and marijuana can be seen as gateway drugs that can lead to more serious drugs later on,” Wilson said. “[We] call it chasing that better high.”

Officer Carrie O’Neil, director of the D.A.R.E. Association of Franklin County, agrees. She states that most addiction begins with marijuana.

“Marijuana is considered to be a gateway drug because it can lead to harder drugs,” O’Neil said. “98 percent of those who have died from drug overdoses started with marijuana.”

Spotting the Issue

Dorfman believes drug use can become a complication if a teenager becomes overly dependent.

“I think that drinking and drug use become problems when people do them for the wrong reasons, like wanting to be a part of something or because you’re sad. [If] people are smoking weed or drinking in a safe environment on occasion there is nothing wrong with that,” Dorfman said. “Drug use gets out of control when people do it for purely social reasons.”

A few of Dorfman’s friends have suffered the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. Dorfman believes that when a loved one is experiencing such a difficult time, showing support is vital.

“When that type of thing does happen it is really hard to know whether you can actually help. It seems black and white, like you should talk to them about it or tell their parents, but it’s harder than that because you don’t want to make them mad,” Dorfman says. “I think the best thing to do if you have a friend going through that is to just support them and try to be a good friend.”

Mary agrees, stating that teenage drug users should not be subject to judgment and punishment.

“If anything, the school should offer help for students with drug problems, help where they won’t be expelled or arrested,” Mary said. “People turn to drugs for all sorts of reasons. I think most people actively seek out drugs because they’re curious, and then keep using drugs because of an array of different reasons.”

Image caption: With middle school students getting into more trouble, it becomes evident that drugs are more prevalent in lower grades. The D.A.R.E. program is meant to stop students from doing drugs early on in life. However, there is a new theory that the program is not effective in leading young students away from soft, and later in life, hard drugs.

Photo illustration by Sasha Dubson