Challenging Dogma - Fall 2007

...Using the social and behavioral sciences to improve the practice of public health.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dare To Think Beyond D.A.R.E.: A Critique Of The Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program – Alison Bayer

“Oh, I remember my D.A.R.E. officer…and singing a song at D.A.R.E. graduation! I don’t remember the words though. I just remember that we had to sing.” Mention the acronym D.A.R.E. to a group of college students or young adults and you will likely hear many reactions of this sort. Scattered memories of activities and events seem to be the largest effect of the D.A.R.E. program. This is a striking finding when one considers that D.A.R.E., the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, is one of the most pervasive youth drug prevention program in America. Since its creation in 1983, the program has been implemented in seventy-five percent of U.S. school districts and has even been adopted in 43 other countries (1).

D.A.R.E. is a school-based health education program, which targets drug use by teaching youth about the consequences of substance abuse and providing skills needed to make smart decisions about drugs. The program is often noted for its use of community police officers as teachers. Specially trained officers visit classrooms and teach the D.A.R.E. curriculum to youth as young as kindergarteners and as old as high school students (1,2).

Many have questioned if D.A.R.E. is creating the right kind of memories. Is it leaving a lasting understanding of the harms and consequences of drug use? More importantly, is it creating an understanding that is translating into behavior change and a decline in drug use in America’s youth? Multiple evaluations have repeatedly found that the program’s effectiveness for reducing and preventing youth drug use is very limited if not insignificant (3). However, despite these findings, D.A.R.E. is continually used as the program of choice in communities across America. The question of why D.A.R.E. is so popular despite its well-known shortcomings is intriguing. Perhaps Americans wants to believe that D.A.R.E. will work. Maybe we are not ready to reject the program until we have come up with a better one. Regardless of why we continually choose the program, it is first critical to recognize why it does not work.

In order to successfully understand why D.A.R.E is falling short of its goals, it is important to look at the social and behavioral factors that influence drug use among youth and how the program accounts for or ignores these principles. Despite being one of the most commonly used and well- known youth drug prevention programs in America, D.A.R.E. is routinely found ineffective largely because it does not present accurate social norms, fails to look beyond in-school education as the appropriate mode of intervention, and does not account for differences in culture and environment which might affect drug use in youth.

Inaccurate Understanding of Social Norms

The D.A.R.E. program fails because it inaccurately presents social norms and consequently, often results in drug promotion rather than drug resistance. D.A.R.E. utilizes the Theory of Planned Behavior. In this theory, a person’s attitudes towards a behavior, their self-efficacy to performing the behavior, and their perception of the social norms of their communities or peer groups determine their behavioral intention, which leads to their behavior (4). D.A.R.E. targets attitudes, self-efficacy and social norms in order to influence intention and consequently change behavior. The program works to change attitudes about drug use by offering education about the harms of drugs and substance abuse. The program targets self-efficacy, a person’s belief in his or her ability to take action, by “teaching students good decision-making skills” and “showing students how to recognize and resist peer pressure” (2). However, D.A.R.E. does not successfully approach social norms and their influence on youth drug behavior.

D.A.R.E. fails because it inaccurately presents social norms. The program assumes that the drug use among youth is frequent and popular. The curriculum is designed to work around the belief that drug use is a normal part of youth culture and that young people frequently feel pressured to use drugs in order to appear normal and fit into their social groups. With this understanding of youth drug use, a key element in prevention is teaching young people refusal skills. Consequently, as D.A.R.E. focuses on teaching young people how to make smart and healthy decisions despite social pressures, they impart to youth the impression that their peers are using drugs and that drug use is socially normal. In reality, many of the kids who go through the D.A.R.E. program might not think that drug use is cool or common and might actually think that drug use is a poor choice made by only a small group of kids. They may think of drug use as the exception rather than the norm. However, when D.A.R.E. reveals to youth that drug use is popular, they may change their behavior for the worse. I hypothesize that D.A.R.E. lessons may actually make students increasingly curious about drugs and feel more pressure to try them as they attempt to adhere to the social values that they have learned from the program.

Peer pressure is indeed a concern when considering the use of drugs among youth. Researchers describe adolescence as a time of impressionability (5). As children grow older they make both well-contemplated and unconscious decisions about who they will become as adults. Rapid physical and cognitive changes are usually accompanied by an increased awareness of the opinions of others. Adolescents are severely conscious of their own behavior and personalities and are also very concerned with whether or not their peers like them (5). In this important developmental turning point, young people are greatly concerned with being a part of a group and not being regarded as different or as an outsider. Consequently, what a young person considers to be normal among his or her social group can be very influential to his or her behavior. However, though it is important to take this concern for social acceptance into account, it is crucial that program developers research and identify accurate social norms and values rather than assume that they know how a population perceives a behavior.

In reality, drug use may no longer be very popular among young people. Some researchers have found that adolescents believe that general attitudes of peers are against drug use (6). Jerald Bachman, Lloyd Johnston and Patrick O’Malley report that a decline in the acceptance of drugs has helped contribute to a drop in usage rates among young people, demonstrating that peer influence does not always result in poor behavior (7). Other investigators have hypothesized that peer pressure can influence drug resistance as well as drug use (6). In truth, social norms may be helping youth more than they are hurting them, but with its inaccurate perception of the norms, D.A.R.E. fails to utilize norms to their advantage. Adolescents are indeed very sensitive to their peers and seek social acceptance, and if D.A.R.E. tells young people that drug use is pervasive, adolescents may be more inclined to experiment with or begin using drugs than they were before their experience with the program.

Schools Are Not the Only Places Where Learning and Development Occur

The D.A.R.E. program fails because it relies upon school-based health education as the best method to provoke behavior change. The program fails to recognize that many other environments influence an adolescent’s decision to use drugs and that expanding or changing programs to target and utilize these environments might lead to a greater reduction of drug use. Research has shown that family and home life may be the first influences on youth to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs (6). Children who are exposed to substance abuse at home are more likely to have their own issues with drug abuse and addiction as they get older (6). Likewise, young people who live in neighborhoods where they see or hear about drug use might be at greater risk of beginning substance use (6). Research has also shown that drug use is more likely to occur in neighborhoods with a low level of social capital, the interconnection between members of a society, or a decreased sense of community. In a neighborhood where people keep an eye out for each other’s children, substance abuse rates are often lower (5).

Despite the fact that researchers have identified multiple important realms of influence, D.A.R.E. approaches youth drug abuse primarily through schools. With the exception of a call for parental participation in some aspects of the program, D.A.R.E. does not address other environments. Consequently, the other environments that might be more likely to influence youth drug use are ignored, automatically decreasing the likelihood of D.A.R.E.’s success.

Schools in particular may not be an effective realm in which to address drug use because many adolescents who use drugs are rebellious, and are also likely to reject or dislike educational settings (8). Studies have found that youth who are at high risk of substance abuse have often dropped out of school, are frequent truants, or are at least a grade behind the average student in their age group (8). However, rather than taking these common characteristics of high risk youth into account, D.A.R.E. builds it program around using police officers as teachers in the classrooms. The use of officers adds an additional level of power to the already authoritative role of the teacher in the traditional school setting. While research has found that many students develop a good relationship with the officer teaching them, it also shows that this relationship depends on the environment that the youth were raised and live in (9). Adolescents who reject authority and display deviant behavior are unlikely to develop a good relationship with the officers. Consequently, those who most need intervention and lessons about substance abuse or who might benefit from an improved relationship with the normally feared police officers are not reached. Those who display or are likely to display deviant behavior are generally very resistant of others having control over them, so using authority figures to promote good behavior in these youth is a theoretically flawed method.

Schools and the use of authority figures might not be good methods to reach all youth. While school based health education can hold some value, other environments and communities that youth are involved in might reach young people better and need to be included or taken into account in the formation of programming.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The D.A.R.E. program is ineffective because it applies the same curriculum and method to youth of all backgrounds and in all environments. The program does not account for culture, likelihood of exposure to risk factors, social norms, and other factors which vary from environment to environment. Research has shown that people have unique experiences with substance use and have various reasons for becoming involved with drugs (8). When youth go through the D.A.R.E. program, they are most likely in different situations and have various understanding and experiences with drugs. Some may be frequent users with family members who do the same. Others may be very experienced and want to stop or are trying to quit using drugs. Some may be just starting experimentation, and others may know very little about drugs and have very little desire to experiment at all. However, the D.A.R.E. program approaches everyone as if they are on the same level of drug use and exposure. The messages and lessons provided are more effective in some groups than others, and D.A.R.E. does little to account for these differences in needed level and type of intervention. It is crucial to tailor a health program or intervention to the individual or group in order to account for important differences in experiences, levels of understanding, wants, and needs (10).

The D.A.R.E. program frequently uses one message to fit all groups. For example, a large part of the program’s curriculum is centered around the development of drug refusal skills. Officers provide young people with methods of rejecting the invitations and pressures of their drug using peers. In one of the lessons included on their website, D.A.R.E. instructs kids to “Stick with friends who are also against violence and drugs, and stay away from known trouble spots” (11). However, this task is probably much harder to do in the case where a young person has already begun to use drugs and has friends that frequently use drugs as well. These adolescents might have to overcome addiction as well as the fear or need to find a new social group on top of the task of refusing drugs. For these youth, turning away from drugs is not quite as easy as the D.A.R.E. slogan, “just say no” makes it seem. These youth would likely benefit from a different intervention that is more catered to their needs and situations such as information on drug abuse counseling options or even access to an open discussion forum where kids can discuss their feelings and concerns about drugs in a comfortable environment.

Other differences in background among young people can decrease the likelihood of success for the universal D.A.R.E. curriculum. In another online lesson on the program’s website, D.A.R.E. advises youth: “Don't use alcohol or other drugs, and stay away from places and people associated with them” (11). However, some youth live in neighborhoods where drug use is prevalent or even have parents who are drug users. Consequently, it is very difficult for these young people to simply stay away because for some that might entail moving to a new neighborhood or not associating with family members. The one-size-fits all curriculum of the D.A.R.E. program does not recognize the diversity of experience and background among the youth that it serves. Consequently, the program is very limited in its ability to successfully reach youth.


The D.A.R.E. program does not take into account important principles of social and behavioral sciences and consequently fails to meet its goals as a youth drug abuse prevention program. By assuming drug use is pervasive and popular among all young people, D.A.R.E. promotes inaccurate social norms which can result in increased perceptions of peer pressure and can actually elevate rates of drug use rather than reduce them. D.A.R.E. depends upon in- school health education as the best method to approach youth and does not consider or target other important environments that influence youth behavior and decision-making such as home, neighborhoods and peers. In consideration of the school-averse qualities often found in youth who use or are likely to begin using drugs, schools may be an especially ineffective environment to bring about behavior change in young people. D.A.R.E. also falls short of success because it fails to take into account personal, familial, and environmental factors that influence youth and drug use. Relying on one curriculum for all young people prevents the program from providing messages, lessons, information and resources that will be useful for youth with different levels of experience with drugs and varying exposures to risk factors of drug use.

The largest barrier for D.A.R.E. will be moving beyond the idea that it is a great program. D.A.R.E. remains the most popular youth drug program in America despite consistent findings that it does not succeed in reducing drug use among youth. The continued utilization and support of the program indicates that there must be some fixation with the idea that D.A.R.E. is really the best-designed anti-drug program around. This persistent reliance on a failed program might be a result of a failure or unwillingness to think beyond traditional individual health behavior change methods. With this limited mindset, the findings that D.A.R.E. does not work are either results of flaws in research design or due to a lack of a more innovative alternative program to replace D.A.R.E.. However, these are not reasons to continually invest time and money in a program that is not producing desirable results.

In order to succeed, D.A.R.E. needs to make substantial changes to its design and must begin to consider and incorporate the social structures and environments that influence drug use in youth. In order to include important influential factors, program developers need to do research and investigation into the needs of the youth they are attempting to reach and also need to recognize that one program may not fit all groups. By reflecting on the reasons why D.A.R.E. falls short, we can begin to move towards finding a program that leaves youth with more than scattered memories of singing songs and talking to police officers.


1. D.A.R.E. America. About D.A.R.E.. Los Angeles, CA: D.A.R.E. America.

2. D.A.R.E. America. What is D.A.R.E.? Los Angeles, CA: D.A.R.E. America.

3. Ennett S, Tobler N, Ringwalt C & Flewelling R. How Effective is Drug Abuse Resistance Education? A Meta-Analysis of Project DARE Outcome Evaluations. American Journal of Public Health 1994;84: 1394-1401.

4. Edberg M. Essentials of Health Behavior: Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007.

5. Gordon S. Adolescent Drug Use: Trends In Abuse, Treatment and Prevention. Wernersville, PA: Caron Foundation, 2000.

6. Belcher H & Shinitzky H. Substance Abuse in Children: Predication, Protection, and Prevention. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine 1998; 152: 952-960.

7. Bachman J, Johnston L & O’Malley P. Explaining the Recent Decline in Cocaine Use among Young Adults: Further Evidence that Perceived Risks and Disapproval Lead to Reduced Drug Use. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 1990; 31: 173-184.

8. Dryfoos, J. Adolescents at Risk: Shaping Programs to Fit the Need. The Journal of Negro Education 1996; 65: 5-18.

9. Hammond A, Sloboda Z, Tonkin P, Stephens R, Teasdale B, Grey S & Williams J. Do Adolescents Perceive Police Officers as Credible Instructors of Substance Abuse Prevention Programs? Health Education Research Advance Access 2007; October: 1-15.

10. White D & Pitts M. Educating Young People About Drugs: A Systematic Review. Addiction 1998; 93: 1475-1487.

11. D.A.R.E. America. The Official Web Site Los Angeles, CA: D.A.R.E. America.

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