Truth or Scare

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

John smoked his first cigarette that same year, behind his grandmother's house. Since then, he's tried alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy mixed with crystal meth or heroin ("Wow, that sucked; that was a horrible experience"), mushrooms, acid and cocaine.

"The friends I hang out with now are very open to experimentation, but we're really careful about what we do and what we don't do too much of," John says. "It's all about moderation: Try everything once, but don't do too much of anything. That's what I think the common view is. See what all the fuss is about, and then leave it alone--but at least you know. I don't think DARE has necessarily screwed anyone up, but I've met a lot of people who say that it made them more curious."

John harbors a mistrust toward police officers that he believes many teenagers share. "Having a cop give DARE is a horrible, horrible idea, because it's just one more authority figure telling you what to do. The people who end up doing drugs aren't the type to listen to authority figures."

John says he's learned the most about drugs from watching his father, a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict. "I'm really wary of cocaine; it's a scary drug. My dad was very much a coke addict and lost a lot--our house, our cars, you name it--and mom left him because of it, although they're back together and happily married now. He screwed up seriously and he's okay now, but I see the downfalls of it, and I see where you can fall."

Instead of doomsday stories about kids jumping off of buildings while on acid, John suggests education about drugs on a more biological level. "If they taught us, like, 'This is what you're doing to your body, this is the process of why you're getting high, this is how your brain is physically reacting, and that's why you're feeling this way,' that would make a difference. Nobody knows the physical aspect. I've studied it a little bit, and for instance, mushrooms are really scary when you find out why they make you hallucinate. Drug education is necessary by all means, but they go about it the wrong way. If they were honest in the beginning, then later you would respect it more."

Officer C.C. Edwards is a DARE-trained police officer in Denver's District 3. His office barely fits two chairs, a desk and a couple of file cabinets. The walls are filled with posters his fifth-grade DARE classes have made, with "Thank You Officer Edwards" written in scrawling marker. The paper is decorated with names written in precise, childlike cursive and punctuated by multiple exclamation points.

Officer Edwards settles into his chair, lacing his thick fingers over his lap. He believes in the work he is doing for "his" kids.

"There should be several different ways in preventing drug use, and it all comes through education," he explains. "It's a combination of parents, information through school, regular teachers as well as police officers. And with all those aspects working together, DARE is an effective way of keeping kids off drugs. It's a real strong part. Bringing police officers into schools, into classes to talk to kids and presenting a program--that's effective."

Edwards says he doesn't believe the DARE program needs to be updated; he answers the criticism with a rhetorical question: "Do you feel the effect of marijuana on the body has changed since you were in fifth grade to when you're in twelfth grade?"

And he says plenty of DARE time is devoted to discussing the effects of substances on the body, in order to lessen a child's natural curiosity. Edwards tells his classes, "Go out on the playground and get your best buddy with you. I'm going to show you what it feels like to be drunk, without ever having taken alcohol into your body. Go to the playground, get your best friend to stand next to you, close your eyes and spin around as fast as you can for a few minutes and stop. As soon as you stop, open your eyes. This is the effect of being drunk. Are you dizzy? Do you stumble? Do you feel sick to your stomach?" For extra effect, he leaves long, weighty pauses between sentences. "Now tell me, do you still want to really find out what it's like to be drunk? After that? This is one of the examples I give, to keep kids from being curious about alcohol."

Edwards stresses that "fifth grade is the time when kids take most interest, and it's when they are building their characters. At the fifth-grade level, a lot of the things that you bring into their lives stick with them. I tell my kids that I'll keep track of them, that I have all their names in a computer, and I tell them that if they get in trouble and they were one of my kids, I'll know when their names show up on my computer."

But he agrees that DARE could be more effective if it lasted beyond one year. "Kids need another dose of something after fifth grade, taught by a police officer with some background knowledge of problems. There will come a time when every kid has to decide for themselves which way to go, and if a kid can walk away from it, then the program was effective."

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