A DAREing Rescue

They had sparred long distance through newspapers and on TV, but they met for the first time over coffee and bagels in a crowded conference room at a Washington, D.C., hotel: On one side of the table, the people who run the nation’s largest and most maligned youth anti-drug program; on the other side, the people who’d done much of the maligning.

The leaders of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and the researchers who called it ineffective were nudged together on this Thursday morning in May 1998, by no less than Congress and the U.S. departments of Justice and Education. The feds were frustrated about pouring millions into a program that didn’t seem to work. Moves were afoot to reduce the funding, but what the feds really wanted was to fix DARE.

The mood was tense; researchers who’d declared that “DARE doesn’t work” and “the program should be entirely scrapped” faced the leaders of an organization whose president had accused critics of “academic fraud.” By noon, researcher Richard Clayton recalls with admitted hyperbole, “There was blood on the floor.”

By day’s end, however, the dialogue had turned so constructive that the two sides met again five months later. They went to dinner together. And they began sketching plans to redesign DARE, a redesign that might save the program from losing federal dollars.

What happened at those meetings more than two years ago explains DARE’s eyebrow-raising announcement in February that, after 18 years of responding to critics with verbal night sticks, it is launching an overhaul and submitting to an evaluation that is unprecedented for any national anti-drug program. It explains how DARE, rather than losing financial support, will still get federal funds and will get its rehab and evaluation paid for by a $13.7 million Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant.

Why would the federal government and one of the nation’s premier health-oriented philanthropies put more resources into fixing DARE? “If you bought a lemon, you wouldn’t go back to the same dealership,” says Rodney Skager, director of the California Attorney General’s annual survey of substance abuse among secondary school students. But for federal officials who grew increasingly frustrated by DARE’s shortcomings, there was little choice.

“A decision was made in [the Department of Justice], sitting around Janet Reno’s conference table, that we should mend it, not end it,” says former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson. “We were realists.”                  

This is how officials in the departments of Justice and Education, members of Congress and research scientists teamed up for an intervention with DARE.

‘Testimonials from Everybody’

Launched in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department, DARE found fast success because it fit with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” movement and because it linked itself with a loyal partner: police. That partnership immediately set DARE apart and made some researchers skeptical. That includes William Hansen, who developed the curriculum for a University of Southern California program, Project Smart, that started in the L.A. middle schools in 1981. A school official told Project Smart that the L.A. police wanted to use it for a new program to be delivered by cops. Project Smart didn’t think police were the right “delivery agents,” and just said no.

Soon thereafter DARE appeared in L.A. grade schools, using what the curriculum developer later admitted was a slightly altered version of Project Smart. “They ripped off our materials,” says Hansen, now president of Tanglewood Research in North Carolina. Ironically, he says, “they took a version of the program that we had radically revamped, because it wasn’t working.”

DARE was an immediate hit with kids, schools, parents and police. After a 1986 study for the National Institute of Justice, by William DeJong, found “positive results,” the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance gave DARE $140,000 to go nationwide. DARE began training officers all over the country to deliver the curriculum.

“The idea of getting a police officer in the classroom who’s a good role model is a very positive thing,” says Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum. “There’s a lot of support among police chiefs for that.”

All of this support filtered up to Congress (with some lobbying by DARE and by police),  which started directing earmarks to DARE from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986 (an earmark that grew to $10 million by 1992). For politicians, standing with DARE became akin to standing against drugs and crime: Mayors, members of Congress and the president relished having their pictures taken with DARE kids and officers. There was even a “National DARE Day.”

“What DARE has excelled in is promotion for their program,” says Lloyd Johnson, who directs the annual Monitoring the Future study at the University of Michigan. “They get testimonials from just about everybody.”

Except for some researchers.

Rift Over Research

While some studies showed that DARE had short-term positive impact on kids – such as improved perceptions of police and rejecting drug use in grade school – several of them concluded that the effect on drug use was nil by middle and high school. So the Institute of Justice contracted in 1991 with the Research Triangle Institute, based in North Carolina, to analyze the body of research on DARE. DARE told its state coordinators that the study “will give us ammunition to respond to critics who charge that DARE has not proved its effectiveness.” That enthusiasm lasted until RTI presented preliminary results at a drug education conference in 1993.

Not only did DARE fail to reduce drug use, RTI said, but it was less effective than programs that didn’t enjoy nearly as much government funding. DARE went to war, blasting the study publicly and lobbying the Institute of Justice to quash it. The institute refused to endorse the report, saying that it acted on the recommendation of peer reviews, not because of DARE pressure. (It was published in The American Journal of Public Health in 1994.)

The victory for DARE came at a price: President Glenn Levant’s attacks on RTI and other “superficial evaluations” turned many researchers emotionally against DARE. Levant is a former L.A. deputy police chief who goes after foes like a blunt instrument. He has accused researchers who criticize DARE as being in favor of drug legalization, and of “misusing science” to attack DARE because “they don’t want our police officers to do the work, because they want it for themselves.”

No one questions Levant’s dedication to fighting youth drug use; but he seemed to take the criticisms of DARE personally, or fear that admitting any fault would jeopardize everything. To academics, he was vicious;  Dennis Rosenbaum, director of the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called DARE’s assault on RTI “repugnant, out of line and very unusual.”

“DARE may have taken a bunker mentality,” says Dr. Herb Kleber, former executive vice president of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), now director of the division of substance abuse at Columbia University Medical School.

Yet DARE realized it had to adjust – not to fix problems, Levant says, but to “make it work better.” Around the time of the campaign against RTI, DARE asked Kleber to head a scientific advisory panel “because of a perceived  need to improve things,” Kleber says. “They said, ‘We need a group of scientists to advise us about where we should be going next, how we should be changing.'”

Over the following years Kleber and Levant met with several researchers who’d criticized DARE, such as Hansen (the Project Smart designer who’d later done a critical review of DARE) and Gil Botvin, who started the highly touted Life Skills Training drug prevention program. “We have always been one to listen to anybody who could tell us how to improve our program,” Levant says.

The researchers found DARE unwilling to accept their suggestions. Kleber says the researchers’ recommendations were not consistant, while Levant complains that the researchers wanted to sell their own curricula. “The bottom line is, they said,  ‘Buy my program,'” Levant says.

But the criticisms did have some impact. Several of the studies said that prevention efforts should be aimed at middle- and high- school youth, but DARE was primarily an elementary program. No one, including Levant, thinks a once-a-week elementary program would show any results in middle or high school without a “booster” program. But while DARE says it is in 80 percent of U.S. elementary schools, its curricula is taught in only about 20 percent of middle schools and 10 percent of high schools. To many, the program for older youth was a barely revised version of the elementary program.

“You could feel the belief building that we really had to look at an older age group,” says advisory panelist Dr. John Schowalter. “I recall people saying we should rethink this and take the criticisms to heart and see if we can find a way to move up into the older age group.”

While they rethought, DARE started losing support among some politicians and police.


Levant is on the phone, his voice rising in anger.  “Last year we added 300 cities!” he says. “Some loudmouth like Rodney Anderson in Salt Lake City criticizes the program and he gets national attention!”

He’s referring to the mayor of Salt Lake, who got national attention last year for dropping DARE in that city, saying,  “DARE is a complete fraud on the American people, and has actually done a lot of harm by preventing the implementation of more effective programs.”

Anderson joined a list of mayors, police chiefs and sheriffs – from cities such as Houston, Spokane, Omaha and Rochester, N.Y. – who have abandoned DARE over the past five years, saying it was ineffective. Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper called DARE “an enormous failure.”

“There is a pretty good segment of police chiefs that recognize that in many ways DARE needed to evaluate what it was doing, needed to be a little more open to suggestions,” says Wexler of the police research forum. Many chiefs “supported the principle of DARE but hoped DARE would take a hard look at how it did business and make appropriate changes.”

As the critical studies and media reports escalated in 1997, officials at DOJ and the Department of Education (DoE) grew more worried that DARE was ineffective and would not significantly reform itself. “There were a lot of reservations about DARE,” says Laurie Robinson. “Janet Reno was pushing us hard” to compel DARE to change. “She was hearing grousing in the field. … She said we need to try to set in motion some kind of process to determine whether DARE can be responsive to some of these concerns.”

Laurie Robinson and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Reginald Robinson (no relation) met with officials from DoE, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among others. Particularly frustrated about DARE was Bill Modzeleski, head of the DoE’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. He’d earned Levant’s wrath at least as far back as 1993, when he told USA Today, “Research shows that, no, DARE hasn’t been effective in reducing drug use.”

One question not on the table: dumping DARE. “It was our feeling that the program was here to stay,” Laurie Robinson says. It still had heavy political support on Capitol Hill and among police, even though they wanted DARE to change.

“The cops love the program for reasons that aren’t part of the stated program goals” to reduce drug use, Reginald Robinson says. “The cops love the program because it gives them a chance to be Officer Friendly with the kids.”

Even critical studies showed that DARE improved kids’ perceptions of police – an important benefit to keep, DOJ felt, albeit not without better results on curtailing drug use. Perhaps most important of all, DARE had created the most extensive delivery system of any anti-drug program in the country. Federal officials wanted to keep that network but change the program.  “We decided we needed to approach DARE about their willingness to think about reform,” says Reginald Robinson.

Congress provided some motivation.

DARE to the Table

“We want to see change. We want to see movement toward reconsideration of the approach you are taking.”

That was the message that members of Congress were giving DARE in 1997, Laurie Robinson recalls. “They were definitely feeling it from the Hill.”     

Congress was pressing for better evidence of results from all substance abuse programs; DARE was big, so it was a big target. The days of $10 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools (SDS) earmarks were gone. Congress passed a Fiscal Year 1998 budget giving SDS grantees two years to show effectiveness in order to get funds. Getting access to part of that more than $500 million a year was crucial to many local DARE programs.

And the DOJ appropriations for 1998 included some unusual language about DARE, crafted by the House Appropriation’s subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary: “Recent studies indicate the need for the program to adapt to the changing culture within our schools. The committee directs the Department to work with officials with the DARE America Program to create new and more effective course criteria.”

Also, the committee “is encouraged by [DARE’s] commitment to take a fresh look at their curriculum through the ongoing sponsorship of a workshop with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. The committee will be interested in the results of this workshop and the continued effort of DARE to improve their important program.”

Those shots across DARE’s bow “gave us some leverage” in pushing DARE for a meeting with its critics, Reginald Robinson says. DOJ contacted William Alden, DARE’s deputy director and a “known quantity” at the department. Alden had been assistant administrator at the department’s Drug Enforcement Administration, and now frequently contacted DOJ and DoE officials on DARE’s behalf. “Billy has great communication and people skills,” Laurie Robinson says. “He’s a warm person.”

He was also “very realistic about the pressure they were under” to reform, Reginald Robinson says. While Levant says fear of losing federal funds had nothing to with DARE’s willingness to overhaul its program, Reginald Robinson says that from his conversations with DARE officials, he knew “the money connection was very important to DARE. …

“Billy said DARE’s open to change.”

The researchers didn’t believe it; they saw little point in sitting down with DARE, figuring DARE would insult their research and ignore their suggestions. Modzeleski lobbied by phone. “He said, ‘I need the researchers to go to this,'” Hansen recalls. Hansen spoke with several fellow researchers, and eventually said,  “Let’s plan on having a very good dinner, and we’ll have low expectations” for the meeting.

“All of us had some e-mail exchanges trying to decide whether we were being taken to the cleaners,” says Clayton, director of the Center for Prevention Research, in Kentucky. “We discussed what would constitute a serious enough threat to progress in the meeting to get us to get up and leave.”

DOJ paid for the researchers and DARE officials to come to D.C. for the summit. But the feds were wary of moderating it, for fear of appearing to take sides. Laurie Robinson called upon someone who’d mediated more than a dozen sessions for the DOJ and DoE: Christopher Stone, president of New York’s Vera Institute of Justice. DOJ saw him as a low-key person with great diplomacy skills.

Says Reginald Robinson, “We knew this meeting would be really tense.”

‘Spirited’ Exchange

They met at the Henley Park Hotel, in a conference room that felt a bit tighter and hotter than expected. At a large table in the middle of the room sat several DARE officials, including Alden and Executive Director  Charlie Parsons (“A nice guy, not given to the hyperbole of Levant,” Hansen says), Kleber, about eight researchers, and the key federal officials. Sitting in chairs along the walls were staffers from federal agencies and DARE supporters, such as police, whom DARE had invited.

The researchers were relieved by who DARE didn’t bring. “It was good for the process for Mr. Levant not to be there,” Clayton says.

“There was a lot of nervousness on all sides,” Stone recalls.

Modzeleski, Laurie Robinson and Reginald Robinson set a positive tone in brief opening statements, saying everyone had come in good faith. Then they left. What did they hope would be the outcome? “That they would want to talk more, that they wouldn’t say, ‘To hell with this,'” Reginald Robinson says.

DARE officials tried to set a positive tone as well, saying they had come “to cooperate.” Then people on both sides presented their views of what the best research said about DARE and where the problems were. They politely traded blunt questions. “There was a lot of testing,” Stone says.

The room soon got warmer. Rosenbaum, from the Center for Research in Law, came to challenge DARE. “It was very important at that meeting that we got straight what the standards of science were,” he says. “The studies that were claiming that DARE was effective were of marginal scientific validity at best. The stronger studies … were all pointing in the same direction,” meaning thumbs down. “If we couldn’t agree from the onset as to what the current state of knowledge was about the effectiveness of DARE, then there wasn’t much purpose in having meetings.”

Rosenbaum was incredulous that DARE had tried to trump his and his colleagues’ studies by touting a positive DARE study that, as Clayton later put it, “wouldn’t get a C minus in an undergraduate class.” The researcher was in the room at DARE’s request, and Rosenbaum knew him. “I respect you as a person,” Rosenbaum said, “but the fact that DARE is playing up your study as the most comprehensive study ever done [on DARE] is absurd.” He laid out why the study didn’t meet basic scientific standards, and said, “You wanna stand up and defend it, let’s do it right now. Let’s have it out.”

The researchers were flexing academic muscle. “The meeting was spirited, to put it mildly,” Kleber says.

And another thing: Rosenbaum was furious that DARE’s website quoted one of his studies as saying DARE was effective. The study said DARE showed “some beneficial effects, but those effects had dissipated over time,” Rosenbaum says. DARE had cut off that last part.

Rosenbaum demanded that DARE stop “quoting me out of context on your Web page.” Other researchers backed him. At the lunch break, Stone conducted shuttle diplomacy between the two sides. After several huddles (where Kleber urged DARE to accept the researchers’ request), Parsons told Rosenbaum that his quotes on the DARE website “would be gone by noon,” Rosenbaum recalls.

That was the turning point. To the researchers, DARE had shown respect and flexibility. The afternoon session felt less tense. The researchers told DARE where they thought the program was failing. The DARE officials, without saying that the program was failing, asked what the researchers thought they should do. The day ended with the two sides exchanging ideas about how to improve DARE.

Soon after the meeting, the researchers got a letter from DARE thanking them for the meeting. The courtesy struck some of the researchers as odd, because the letter was signed by Levant.

Fixing DARE

Talking about overhauling DARE would mean nothing without someone to pay for the job. Keeping tabs on the DARE meetings was the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health issues (assets: $8.73 billion). RWJ had been looking for ways to improve substance abuse prevention programs for youth.

Research was showing certain common elements that seemed to be effective in reducing youth substance abuse, but “there was a very large gap between what we know and what we practice at the community level,” says Vice President Nancy Kaufman. RWJ wanted to take “what we know” and apply it. 

Among the programs RWJ looked at was DARE. Kaufman and Kleber knew each other through Kleber’s role at CASA (an RWJ grantee). She asked if DARE might be open to working with the foundation on revising its curriculum. Kleber asked Levant, who thought it was a good idea.

Even critical studies showed that DARE improved kids’ perceptions of police – an important benefit to keep, DOJ felt, albeit not without better results on curtailing drug use.

As RWJ learned more about DARE, what stuck out was the training of the DARE officers  – “one of the best training systems we had seen,” Kaufman says – and the potential of the delivery system. A new program would be hard-pressed to achieve the same market penetration. “Going out and convincing those schools to change from Brand X to Brand Y is no small feat.”

Others had the same idea; that’s why some of the researchers wanted to sell DARE their curricula, rather than try to replace DARE in the schools. DARE talked with at least two programs, Life Skills Training and Project Alert (based in L.A.), but none of the deals worked out.

Meanwhile, most of the researchers and DARE officials from the first meeting gathered again in October, at the Vera Institute’s offices in New York. For two days they sketched a rough design for a new curriculum and how to evaluate it. The animosity that hung over the first meeting was largely gone; the researchers and DARE leaders even went to an Italian restaurant together.

At the end of the second day, the participants crafted a memo saying that DARE’s delivery system should be used to test curricula that have been found to be effective in reducing substance abuse among middle and high schoolers; that a group would be formed to choose the curricula; and that the impact would be tested in a longitudinal study.

DOJ and DoE were thrilled that the meetings had brought the two sides to a peaceful understanding. Laurie Robinson recalls, “I told Chris [Stone] that we would send him to the Middle East.”

The Money

RWJ, which sent Senior Program Officer Floyd Morris to the New York meeting, would foot the bill. Clayton was to head the project. But he found himself over-committed on work, and asked Zili Sloboda, senior research associate at the Institute for Health and Social Policy in Akron, Ohio, if she was  interested. The same month as the New York meeting, Sloboda had left her post as director of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She knew about DARE and she knew Kaufman. In June 1999  Sloboda went to RWJ headquarters in Princeton, N.J., where she, Kaufman and others sat down with Levant and Alden.

“He asked me what I thought needed to be done,” Sloboda says of Levant. “I said first of all, they should be in the middle schools and high schools.” After discussing DARE’s strengths and weaknesses, DARE and RWJ asked Sloboda to write a “concept piece” that would compare DARE’s curriculum with what is known about effective prevention practices, then suggest a new design.

The analysis found two major problems, Sloboda says: First, the curriculum was “very dense,” covering too much material too quickly, leaving the police officers to do little more than lecture. Partly as a result of that problem, the program was not interactive enough with the kids.

The redesigned DARE would involve the youths in more interaction and change the role of the police officer from lecturer to facilitator. Kids would hold discussions among themselves about their perceptions of drug use by their peers, their perceptions of harm from drug use, and skills to resist substance abuse. There would be more role-playing. And the program would focus on seventh and ninth grades.

(When it unveiled a new curriculum in 1994, DARE said the program would be “more interactive.”)

Even as Sloboda crafted that plan, and well after DARE had agreed with the other researchers that DARE should be redesigned and evaluated, Levant continued swinging at critics. When a University of Kentucky study published in August 1999 said “the preponderance of evidence suggests that DARE has no long-term effect on drug use,” Levant told the Washington Post that it was “voodoo science.” In February 2000 he told the Detroit News that there was no need to evaluate DARE, because it was based on proven education techniques.

Will the Marriage Survive?

To DARE, it looked like a final insult: In its waning days this past January, the Clinton administration released a U.S. Surgeon General’s report on youth violence and drug abuse. It said DARE’s elementary school program appears to have no impact on later drug use.

Then Modzeleski’s SDS office published its first list of “exemplary programs” that had demonstrated effectiveness in curtailing violence and substance abuse, as Congress had required.  DARE is not on the list of nine programs, nor is it listed among the 33 “promising programs.”

Although the designations probably give those programs a leg up in competing for SDS funds, no one is sure exactly how. Many people in DoE thought Congress intended that programs not on those lists would not be eligible for SDS grants, but with a new presidential administration in place, that is not clear, says DoE spokeswoman Melinda Ulloa.

At the least, the lists hang like a threat over DARE if it doesn’t improve. “The possibility of having funding yanked is there,” Ulloa says.

At about the same time as that list came out, the RWJ board of trustees agreed to provide $13.7 million to redesign DARE and evaluate the new program. DARE and RWJ unveiled the plan at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 15. Eighty high schools and 176 middle schools will participate in the study, RWJ says.

Days before the announcement, Levant told the New York Times, “I’m not saying it [DARE] was effective,” but that it was always based on the best science available at the time. While applauding any efforts to improve DARE, the researchers who met with DARE at DOJ’s behest are less than bowled over. “It wouldn’t surprise me” if the new program fails, says Johnson of Monitoring the Future. “The premise under which DARE has operated from the beginning is that the right person to be the change agent is a police officer. I’ve never been convinced of that.” 

Johnson and others think the program should be taught by teachers, as are many school-based anti-drug programs. Levant says teachers don’t want to go through the 80 hours of training, and turnover and transfers are so routine among teachers that it would be difficult to keep training the delivery force.

Will the new DARE have a better relationship with researchers? Several are disappointed that there was no follow-up after the New York meeting. “There was an expectation that somebody would be setting up a study to look at a revised program,” Hansen says, and that several of those researchers would be involved.

“We haven’t been kept informed, despite our agreement to have openness and all work together,” Rosenbaum says.

“There’s still a risk that the research community will not accept this,” he says. “They’re running that risk again. They need to keep a dialogue going with those of us who have studied DARE.

“We’ll see if the marriage is going to survive.”

Patrick Boyle can be reached at


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