Truth or Scare

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

Layla stands up and brushes the hallway dust from her hands before making her point. "If you had people coming into DARE classes that were the kids' age, that would be really good for them to see. They'll know it can happen to them. Instead of just saying drugs are bad, they'll be able to actually give perspective. They'll give the effects, and not 'Drugs are stupid, cigarettes make your lungs burn and your clothes stink.' That doesn't deter anyone, or nobody would smoke."

The fifth-grade DARE program is part of an entire family of DARE curricula that include a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade segment, a junior high segment and a senior-year segment. But due to lack of manpower, money, and cooperation from both schools and law-enforcement agencies, DARE in Colorado is mostly restricted to the fifth-grade core program. Of all the schools that have implemented DARE statewide, only 25 percent use anything beyond the fifth-grade level. And although DARE has been slightly updated for the Nineties (when a focus on leadership skills, responsibility for one's actions and healthy lifestyle choices are considered more "modern" concepts), most of the basic drug information is in the same form as it was in 1983, says DARE Colorado executive director Russ Ahrens.

And though the program's bumper-sticker slogans are ubiquitous, many school and law-enforcement agencies question its effectiveness. The Boulder County Sheriff's Department discontinued DARE in April last year. Sergeant Greg Schumann says the program was cut because "we felt we could tailor our own programs to better meet our needs, as opposed to following a national program."

Within the 86 elementary schools in the Denver Public Schools, opinions about DARE's usefulness vary widely. One principal gushes that DARE is an "extremely successful program" and that "kids love it." But Richard Smith, principal at Bradley Elementary, says his school doesn't use the program. "A one-shot deal doesn't work for us," he says. "By fifth grade, kids have developed habits, and you've missed the chance to teach these good traits." He says Bradley Elementary is working on initiating a program to replace DARE.

Dr. Gene Jacquez, a program manager for Safe & Drug-Free Schools & Communities, is confident that the DARE program is thriving in Denver. "I think the school systems have embraced the DARE program," he says. "It provides a police officer's presence in the classroom and assists with safety issues, gun control and drug prevention, so from that standpoint, DPS is happy with the program. It is just one aspect of our drug-education programs, and that aspect is necessary." Jacquez says that other important pieces of the drug-prevention puzzle include substance-abuse counselors in high schools, the Project Alert substance-abuse program in some middle schools, and the Too Good for Drugs initiative in some elementary schools.

Vanessa, seventeen, stands out in her high school philosophy class. Her face is bright and attentive among sleeping heads on desks, and she debates forcefully--but politely--with her teacher. Petite, with delicate features, she looks like the perfect example of a DARE success story. Instead, she's one of the most unlikely ex-heroin addicts you'll ever see. Only her slightly hardened green eyes betray her look of innocence, and she's not embarrassed to show the tiny scars on her wrists, the ones that finally landed her in drug rehab--but she's not proud of them either.

Vanessa was born in Colorado and moved to Texas and Palm Beach, Florida, before moving back to Denver two years ago. Florida, like Denver, introduced fifth-graders to DARE, for one year only.

"You'd think Denver, being a big city, would be a worse place to grow up compared to an upper-class suburban tropic with a bunch of old people running around like Palm Beach. It's not. I started early. My mom's an alcoholic--like, a real alcoholic. She'd start the day with a shot of vodka, and she smoked a lot, too." Vanessa giggles slightly. "Ours was the house that no parent with any sense would let their kids come play at, knowing about my mom screaming and cussing and walking around naked. I was literally friends with all the kids that get pushed aside, the gothic kids and the skaters."

The kids Vanessa talks about as "pushed aside" were the same kids who proudly altered their DARE bumper stickers and T-shirts with tape so they read "DARE to do drugs." As Vanessa says, they knew all the tricks.

"In DARE, they give you a little coloring book so you can color your picture of the marijuana leaf and unscramble the words about what it's gonna do to you," Vanessa jokes. "DARE is something you enjoy because it gets you out of doing biology. It's fun when you get to see the cop's gun or they bring the drug-sniffing dogs in, because it's a break from normal class."

But Vanessa says the halls of her high school were a shopping mall for drugs, and kids would smoke joints in the courtyard. Freshman year, she says, "I got really into acid. There's a good five years of my life where everything was so jumbled that I can't even tell you what went on, just that I really lost it for awhile. Heroin was my downfall, and it got to the point where I never really left the house. I was stealing $800 necklaces from my friends' houses and pawning them off for $75 worth of heroin. I was so used to being in an altered state that no one could tell that anything was different about me."

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