One day last January at about 8:15 a.m., I found myself sitting in Mrs. Cloud’s eighth grade class at Lahaina Intermediate School. At the front of the classroom Maui Police Officer Karen Wong was talking to the students. Above her head, in a neat row were all the U.S. Presidents. The face of Lincoln is crowned by a purple halo saying “TurboCharged.”
“Who can tell me what respect means?” she asked. Hands shot up.
“Being nice,” he said. “Treating people how you want to be treated.”
“Ah, you’re reading from the book,” Wong said with a playful wave. “How about courtesy? Raise your hand if you know what courtesy means.”
“Kindness!” several students shouted. Wong nodded.
“Do you think,” she asked carefully, “a lot of the problems in the world today have to do with people not having respect? Not being courteous?”
Heads nodded slowly.
Though Wong’s instruction was part of the D.A.R.E. program, which stands for Drugs and Alcohol Resistance Education, there was very little talk of drugs. It seemed more a course of good citizenship.
Officer Wong had an easygoing, maternal charm that resonated with the students. She told amusing anecdotes about her mother and childhood. She told the students she likes brownies, which made the kids giggle. At another point she recounted an amusing story about how her mom was afraid she would get kidnapped at Ala Moana mall in Honolulu. They sat listening wide-eyed about the dangers of the big city.
Later she told the class to take a piece of paper, fold it into quarter halves and write their names, period numbers and the numbers one through 10 on each of the quarters. A worksheet was passed from the front to the back with a series of questions pertaining to drugs. The questions were simple and should be easy for the students; after all, they’ve been exposed to D.A.R.E. since kindergarten.
Despite D.A.R.E.’s near universal popularity, policy analyses of its effectiveness have been nearly universally abysmal. More than 30 independent studies, including those of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology and The American Journal of Public Health have concluded that D.A.R.E. is ineffective, even counterproductive.
Last year, the General Accounting Office published a scathing report concluding the program has virtually “no statistically significant long-term effect in preventing youth illicit drug use.” The report went on to say D.A.R.E. graduates demonstrate “no significant long term differences toward illicit drug use.”
The D.A.R.E. program on Maui is no different. Despite an expansive budget, the program appears to have little effect on either drug arrest rates or drug use in general. How many times have we heard of the “Ice Problem” and how methamphetamine use is rising? Shouldn’t we be hearing the opposite, considering all the money and energy we’ve pumped into D.A.R.E. each year?
In 1988, 81 juveniles were arrested for violating Maui County drug laws. In the ensuing years, the numbers fluctuate all over the scale. Some years they’re lower, some higher. In 2003, police arrested 116 juveniles for drug violations and another 629 adults—many of which were presumably D.A.R.E. graduates.
Since 1990, D.A.R.E. has been under fire across the nation. Numerous cities have dropped the program from the school curriculum entirely. Some of D.A.R.E.’s own proponents have begun talking of “serious revamping” the program.
There’s even evidence D.A.R.E. may be doing damage. The recent report “Truth and D.A.R.E.: Tracking Drug Educations to Graduation and as Symbolic Politics,” published in the academic journal Social Problems, cites “a sharp decline in positive attitudes toward the police and a growing unwillingness to condemn peer’s consumption of alcohol.”
Yet none of this has hindered D.A.R.E.’s popularity. Since its creation in the early 1980s, D.A.R.E. has gone from an experimental pilot program in the City of Angels to a multi-million dollar industry. D.A.R.E. has been used in over 80 percent of America’s schools and is now in 56 nations around the world, including Turkey and Jamaica.
D.A.R.E. received national recognition under President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. Today it rakes in about $700 million from the federal treasury. More than 50,000 police officers nationwide have been trained in the D.A.R.E. curriculum. They in turn have taught 36 million students.
The philosophy and organizational structure is reflective of its founders and sociological imagination. Orchestrated in 1983 by then-Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates (who once famously remarked that casual drug users should be shot), D.A.R.E. was born in the fires of the drug wars that plagued Los Angeles. There was very little good in L.A. at that time: crack cocaine; the Bloods and the Crips; drive-by shootings; racial tension. Frustrated with the inability to match the drug dealer’s efficiency in recruiting children, law enforcement officials adopted a new strategy.
It proved to be the Golden Fleece and made all the right people feel important. For once, education officials, religious leaders, parental groups and law enforcement found something they could all agree on.
Kids loved D.A.R.E. too, at least at first. The D.A.R.E. officers who visited schools were skilled and charismatic. Kids loved the free stuff they got: shirts, key chains, sweatshirts and pencils. Gun-carrying cops told thrilling stories of catching bad guys. In the inner city especially, where kids’ experience with police are less than charming, D.A.R.E. officers treated the students with respect. And if none of that appealed to them, they got a break from math and science.
Of course D.A.R.E. uses all this to its advantage. The program wants the kids to look up to it and its facilitators. D.A.R.E. is like the guidance counselor who wants to be liked, wants to be hip. Just look at its logo, written in faux-graffiti blood red script. D.A.R.E. is with you. D.A.R.E. knows the streets. D.A.R.E. is tough.
Back at Lahaina Intermediate, Officer Wong passed out stacks of D.A.R.E. workbooks. Titled Take Charge of Your Life, it has nine chapters, called “Lessons.” It’s a slick publication with fashionable, high quality photographs of good-looking young people in various states of frolicking or lounging. There are a series of small assignments scattered among snippets of information and cautionary moralistic stories concerning drug and alcohol use.
It’s also hard to look at because it’s terminally lame. Messages like “Alcohol is not my thing” and “I don’t want any beer. Do you have any soda?” may be rooted in good intentions, but there’s no way savvy kids will fall for them.
Looking around, I saw students were already making fun of D.A.R.E.’s whole point. “Be respectful of me,” one giggling girl told another.
Wong is one of five full time D.A.R.E. officers, with several others serving in a similar program called G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education And Training). Others serve as school resource officers (SRO’s). D.A.R.E. serves Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
“We teach prevention and safety strategies,” said Wong. “Like how to say no, how to get out of a sticky situation and withstand peer pressure.”
I asked her if she thought the program actually worked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it depends on who you talk to, what your sources are and what you consider success. For us, success means a kid coming back to us and thanking us for what we did for them. If that happens to me once a year, I would consider the program successful. Some come back and want to get into law enforcement themselves.”
Although the program doctrine and curriculum comes from a central authority—D.A.R.E. America—Wong sees the Maui D.A.R.E. program as unique.
‘We [D.A.R.E. officers] each bring something to the schools,” she said. “More than anything, the program is successful, we feel, because the officers care so much about what they are doing.”
Would you say Maui has a drug problem?
“Again, I don’t know the answer to that,” she said. “If you asked a vice officer that question then he would say yes, because he sees it day in and day out. I know there is a drug problem but I don’t know the magnitude of it. We can’t save everyone. I know there is a core group that is going to do what it is going to go regardless of what we say. What we want to do is get the kids off that edge, the ones who can go either way.
“You know, we have kids who come to me and ask how long it would take them to get drunk, what different drugs do to your body, how they affect you and I tell them to look at it in a different way. What I myself try to do is say to the kids, ‘Look, anyone can do drugs, anyone can succumb to peer pressure but what is an accomplishment are those that have restraint and stay drug free.’” MTW