Truth or Scare

Drug-using DARE graduates come clean about the program's faults.

The core DARE curriculum is a seventeen-week dose of drug education that lasts one hour a week. It focuses on six major areas: providing accurate information about alcohol and drugs; teaching students decision-making skills; showing students how to resist peer pressure; giving students ideas for alternatives to drug abuse; building self-esteem; and creating violence awareness. Today's high school seniors remember this curriculum as a fun diversion from regular schoolwork, a chance to have a jovial police officer at the front of the class instead of their normal teacher. The course started with a "get to know your police officer" question-and-answer session (the majority of questions focused on the officer's gun), as well as defining "peer pressure" and "self-esteem."

Eventually the officer introduced the famous "drug box," a briefcase that displayed everything from dime bags of marijuana to crack spoons and heroin needles. He told students all the ways drugs could be used--that cocaine came in many different forms, that marijuana could be made into brownies. After laying this general groundwork, the program ventured into role playing (fifth-graders were told that one response might be to say "I quit" when someone offered them drugs) and discussion of the consequences of a life of drugs (they were shown pictures of homeless people in vans). At the end of the seventeen weeks, students went through DARE graduation, receiving their black T-shirts with the DARE logo and giggling as some essay winners were forced to read in front of parents, students and teachers. This year's seniors remember shaking hands with then-district attorney Norm Early.

Amy and Layla sit on the grainy floor in a dim hallway of South High School. Amy has curly bleached hair held back from her face with butterfly clips, and she wears jeans and a cardigan. Layla is petite, with short hair and glasses. She wears hiking boots and a snowboarding T-shirt.

Layla, now fifteen, won a DARE medal in fifth grade after writing an essay on the reasons she'd never do drugs. She began smoking pot and drinking alcohol in middle school; in seventh grade she started doing crystal meth. She's been going to all-night parties almost every weekend now for the last year and a half and says the rave scene is her main motivation for continuing to use drugs. Any ravegoer will tell you that although the dance-club or vacant-warehouse parties are usually nonviolent, good fun, about 85 percent of the attendees are on some sort of energy-producing drug.

"You have to do something, because no vitamin in the world will keep you awake for more than a day," Layla says.

"And if you want to listen to that crappy techno music, you have to be on something," sixteen-year-old Amy says sarcastically. "DARE is really out-of-date when it comes to drugs. It's not all just coke and heroin anymore, when half of the drugs available at raves were made with chemicals in someone's basement. They're in all different forms now."

For both girls, their most vivid memory of DARE is the drug box. "DARE taught me the exact things about drugs that I'd need to know in order to do them later," Amy says. "I remember thinking, 'When I'm older and I'm stressed out and need to go calm down, I'll know to smoke marijuana and not sniff cocaine, because pot's the one that will make you relax.'"

"I don't know if I really learned that much," Layla says of DARE, "but I knew that I could write, and that's why I won their essay contest. I knew how to say what they wanted to hear."

Layla and Amy both have family histories of addiction. "The whole side of my mom's family was addicted to all kinds of drugs, which makes it in my blood to be an addict whether I do drugs or not," says Layla. "My uncle is addicted to heroin. On my dad's side, well, he just smoked weed in his younger days."

"My dad is an alcoholic still, so I have that vulnerability," says Amy. "I consider myself going through two true alcoholic stages. Once in sixth grade, only a year after DARE, and that was when I went to a private school. You couldn't exactly say I was exposed to drugs and alcohol there, either. I couldn't wake up or go through the day without having, like, three shots of Cuervo at seven in the morning. My second little alcoholic stage was sophomore year, in October and November. I drank practically every day, at least once a day.

"Overall, I don't think DARE is doing its job whatsoever," Amy says. "I don't know anyone who can still remember and use what DARE taught them...They couldn't use it in sixth grade, and they wouldn't even want to now. You can have tons of education beforehand, but you still are going to have to experiment to know what drugs are. Unless you know someone who overdoses or whatever, it doesn't have any personal effect on you. But then again, I have friends who have almost died from overdoses who keep using."

Both girls have taken a class at South called "Social Problems," and they agree that hearing personal stories of addicts is what has had the biggest impact on them. Teacher Richard Ellsworth says the one-semester class is "pretty much uncensored," focusing on major issues ranging from marriage and divorce to drugs and pornography. Students appreciate learning the undiluted facts from a teacher willing to discuss anything and who views speakers as a valuable teaching aid.

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