Truth or Scare
Abigail needs all ten fingers to count the drugs she's done in her seventeen years.
"So I went from pot to alcohol...but then in the course of like two years, I started going into crystal meth, cocaine, ecstasy, GHB...What else have I done?"
"Special K?" Her boyfriend, Reid, prompts her from where he sits on the bed in her room.
"I've done Special K, mescaline, acid, um, heroin by accident--"
"Oops," jokes Reid, and they both erupt in laughter.
"Yeah, morphine, Valium...um, I shot up crystal once," Abigail continues. "Crank, crack--I've smoked crack--you know, I've done everything."
Like hundreds of thousands of Colorado teenagers, Abigail is a graduate of DARE, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program that promises to teach kids how to say no to drugs.
As Abigail talks, she paces in circles on her carpeted floor. "I just remember--we'd have these little skits on DARE, and they would always tell us that old men were going to come and give us, you know, pot or something and that we had to say no to them. I always had the picture of, like, an old man coming to my elementary school and being like, 'Here! Take some of this, it's good for ya.'"
Abigail used marijuana in eighth grade, three years after DARE "It's funny--I was expecting an old man to come up and give [drugs] to me, so when my friends gave them to me, it didn't feel like it mattered. They told us in DARE that we were going to be hallucinating, in convulsions in the corner off of pot, and really, that just doesn't happen.
"When I smoked pot, I realized that this isn't hurting me in any way, I'm not dying," Abigail says. "I'm not going into convulsions on the ground, so maybe I'm not susceptible to the death part of drugs. Because I wasn't dying, my friends weren't dying, you know, and I wasn't getting it from strangers but from close friends. So I thought it was okay, you know, and I never had the peer pressure they talk about in DARE."
"There's no pressure," says Reid. "You get yourself to do it."
Abigail flops into a chair in disgust. "No one wants to give out their drugs! For free? Please!"
The conversation is interrupted by Abigail's mother, who pokes her head in the door to announce that dinner is served. It was Abigail's mother who checked her into a rehabilitation program when Abigail's drug use became undeniable. Her mother says Abigail's life is finally back in order. "It brought tears to my eyes when I talked to Abigail's teacher the other day," she says. "She's doing so well now. She used to be pretty messed up."
Abigail brings a plate of salad and spaghetti into her room and shuts the door. The walls in her room are covered with tag names and messages written by her friends in permanent marker. The writing peeks out between fliers from raves and pictures of stars like Courtney Love, ripped from fashion magazines. There are also posters from the plays Abigail does at a Denver community theater. She is a senior at Colorado's Finest Alternative School in Englewood and plans to move to New York with Reid and work as an actress later in the year. A pink scarf hangs above her bed.
She says she doesn't feel that any particular program helped her discover the truth about her past drug problems.
"Nothing, no program out there could do it for me. I've taken a more advanced form of DARE, called the Ace Program, and that didn't help, you know. I went through rehab, and that didn't help. It was up to me to do drugs, and it was up to me to stop." Abigail's tongue ring scrapes the plate as she licks it clean. "That's what they should tell you in DARE: that sometimes it will be up to you."
DARE was started in Los Angeles in 1983. The Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. Unified School District came up with the idea as a way to address a growing drug problem among the city's youth and to ease escalating animosity between kids and police officers. Although it was never intended to be a nationwide program, it coincided with the Reagan-era "War on Drugs" and attracted federal funds from the Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice through the Bureau of Justice Assistance. When the other 49 states began receiving money to begin their own forms of drug prevention, DARE became the national model and training centers popped up all over the U.S., says Janelle Krueger, program director of Safe & Drug-Free Schools & Communities (an office of the DPS Department of Social Services).
The city of Broomfield was the first to initiate the DARE program in Colorado, in the fall of 1987. Arvada, Longmont and Colorado Springs followed in 1988; Denver started its DARE program in November 1989. Denver's DARE headquarters are an affiliate of DARE Colorado, a nonprofit organization chartered by DARE America to "deliver DARE in Colorado."
Currently in Colorado, 115 DARE-affiliated law-enforcement agencies send out 325 DARE-trained police officers to teach the classes to 145,000 fifth-graders every year.
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.
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."
Vanessa remembers a friend she had in middle school whom she drank with every night. She credits this same friend with making her want to turn her life around. After moving to Colorado, Vanessa says she needed only one month of drug rehabilitation because she was so willing to leave her old lifestyle behind. She says she no longer does drugs and sees herself as a role model to her younger brother and sister.
"My brother is totally comfortable coming to me. He wants to find out what I think, and he knows how I feel about how he acts around girls, drugs and alcohol. I ask him how he's going to feel when I find out he got some girl drunk and pregnant, saying it's rape. You have to teach the consequences, but not just the legal ones, because they don't have the impact. When I was thirteen and running around at two in the morning doing cocaine, doing heroin, doing mescaline, I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, gee, this'll go on my permanent record.' You're not afraid of cops. You know they can't do anything to you when you're a minor."
Vanessa says the DARE program should include speakers like herself. "My DARE officer was nice, but I don't think she ever put herself at our level so we could relate. They should have kids like me going into third-grade classes and being like, 'I'm your older sister's age, so you should listen to me.' I would tell kids, 'I was in your place four years ago, and I know where you are in your lives. I know what you're doing, but listen to what happened to me.'
"Since I've done all these drugs, I can't get things straight in my head sometimes, or I get confused with my words. I know I'm not stupid, but I'll totally notice that when I'm reading a book, it takes me longer to comprehend things. I used to be the girl that read faster than any other in my elementary school. I should be able to read. I should be able to comprehend a simple American history book, but since I did all these drugs when my brain was still developing...when you're putting LSD or crystal meth in your head, coming from someone who's done drugs, it's no joke. There's definitely a difference in your quickness, in how you respond."
These are the things kids should know about drugs, Vanessa says, "not obnoxious things in DARE when they tell you that some girl was so high that when they arrested her, she pulled her hand right out of the handcuffs and the skin ripped right off. It's important just to be open and honest with kids."
DARE Colorado no longer receives federal funding; it's run largely on private donations from big businesses and benefits like this year's April 10 Starfish Ball, as well as annual silent auctions that bring in between $15,000 and $25,000. Some of DARE's most generous contributors include the Robert and Sharon Magness Foundation, Channel 9, the Colorado Rockies, the Denver Broncos and Norwest Bank of Colorado. Later this year, however, DARE is slated to receive a little lift in the form of an $18,000 federal grant from HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Traffic Area). HIDTA is awarding this grant to Denver as part of a larger project that includes other DARE cities located near drug-trafficking networks; in Denver's case, it's I-70 and I-25, where millions of dollars' worth of drugs are shipped back and forth every day. DARE Colorado's Russ Ahrens says the organization's annual budget is $260,000, which is split between spending for officer training, administration and operational costs.
In Colorado, about $100,000 of DARE money goes toward DARE officer training, an eighty-hour intensive certification course. After completing the course, officers must prove their skills by instructing a class of other officers in their DARE training and later receiving evaluations in a classroom setting. It is only after their instructors watch them teach an actual class that officers are considered "DARE certified."
But some DARE graduates say cops are the last ones who should be teaching the program.
Pulling the sleeves of his green Abercrombie shirt over his fingertips, John sighs and says, "I'm the pothead who experiments with drugs with his friends. I'm eighteen years old, done with high school, going to college early, going to CSU in the fall...My GPA is a 3.2 or a 3.3. I mean, I'm not your stereotypical pothead. I've been involved in my church youth group since I was in seventh grade. I was in the church choir for three years. I mean, come on."
John's most vivid memory of his DARE experience is the day he realized that he didn't have to believe everything he was being told. "I don't remember the officer's name, but I remember him telling me that I could get addicted from one cigarette. I came home and asked my mother--and you have to understand, my mother would have backed up anything DARE had said, you know? But I came home and told her, 'I learned in DARE that you can get addicted off one cigarette,' and my mother just laughed and said, 'No, of course not.' That blew DARE for me right there."
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."
Of course, the only times you'll hear about the DARE program are the times when negative things occur, says Edwards. "You'll only hear about the kids who had a beer party up on the hill and six of them got in a car and tried to out-race a train. Those are the stories you hear, and not about the million other kids who said 'no' that day."
Edwards makes the point that DARE can only do so much, and after that, it will be up to the student to make his own decisions. He has a favorite story to tell to illustrate this point: "After giving a class on violence reduction at one of the middle schools, I saw a fight in the hallway. Two of the students that were fighting were two students that were in my class at two separate times. I sat them down in my office, and I asked one of the females, 'Can you tell me what you learned about violence reduction?' And she went down the line from the top, where I started, to all the examples of how to reduce violence and how to not get involved, how to avoid it. She went through each one of the steps we had talked about in the classroom. I asked her, 'Why couldn't you use one of those steps when this person confronted you?' And she said, 'Just because I know this information doesn't mean I have to use it.'"
He keeps in touch with some of his old students, Edwards says, and he sometimes asks them about their DARE experience. "I've met a lot of first-place essay-contest winners who remember winning the contest, and they still believe they'll never use drugs. Unfortunately, I meet some who decide otherwise. I asked what part of the class they didn't understand, because maybe they were having problems in their life with what was going on around them that prevented them from concentrating on what was being said to them. They could have not been paying attention."
"I don't remember anything from DARE, but that's because I was always drunk or high," admits Tasha. She is thirteen but could pass for at least five years older. She sits in a blue chair at a desk in Cedars Day Treatment in Lakewood, an alternative school for kids who attend because the courts have sent them there.
"I graduated from their DARE courses or whatever. I remember them bringing in sacks of weed, cocaine, acid, pipes and bottles of vodka--the real stuff. They'd leave it there during a break, and when they came back, it would be gone."
Two other Cedars students, Marissa and Danielle, sit in desks in the narrow classroom. Seventeen-year-old Marissa is absorbed in her lunch, but her purposeful sneer eventually gives way to a tight smile. Danielle is particularly beautiful, her dark hair pulled into a bun on the top of her head, and she has a relaxed, unassuming demeanor. Jim Lorenz, a teacher at Cedars, listens from a chair in the middle of the room.
"They never sat down and talked to you; they talked at you," Tasha continues, never looking up. "I really never believed any of it, because my sister and the people around me were already getting high. It was kind of normal, and they were telling us that normal people don't do it. They said that once you use drugs you'd get addicted, but I never believed you could get addicted. I just, well, I kind of still don't." She flashes an apologetic look to Lorenz.
Marissa shifts in her seat and adds, "I think DARE was just another boring lecture for us that we'd have to sit and listen to. We didn't pay attention because we'd already experienced drugs, and if you like it, you like it, and if you don't, you don't."
These girls could have taught their fifth-grade classes what marijuana was before the police officer had finished defining self-esteem. When the teachers were explaining what it meant to resist peer pressure, these girls knew no one was talking to them.
"It's easy to get ignored," says Danielle. "It's the support here that makes us feel good."
"There's a lot that conventional schools are missing," says Lorenz. "I think that the role conventional schools think they have is to classify students, to categorize and separate them. They have a certain percentage that have to be very successful, a certain percentage that have to be moderately successful, a certain percentage that have to struggle and a certain percentage that fail. And I think they actually see that as their job, to see how willingly kids accept external controls. I think the kids we get to see at Cedars are the ones that, for various reasons, aren't willing to accept external controls. One of the things I try to get across is that school failed you, you didn't fail school."
Though most students at Cedars don't have much choice but to attend, no one seems annoyed or unwilling to participate in assignments or activities, even if it means a required urinalysis each week. The school's philosophy is to get through to its students by getting to know them individually, working with them one-on-one or in small groups, doing things they enjoy to bring out their talents and skills.
Danielle came to Cedars after she was expelled from her high school for distributing marijuana. She likes it that the people at Cedars have drug experiences themselves, so they don't have to pretend to know what she's been through. If a modeling career doesn't work out, Danielle says she'd like to work as a drug counselor for teenagers.
"I don't think I would trade the experiences I've had, because they've taught me a lot," she says. "I think DARE could teach a lot more than they do. I think they're right to start in fifth grade, but if I ran a drug program, I don't think I'd hire anybody. It would just be me. Because of the experiences I've had, I could teach a lot more than a regular DARE officer. I'd tell kids to make their own decisions but to be careful. In DARE, they pretty much just tell you that drugs are bad, and that's not enough."
If Marissa had her way, she'd also run a drug program that focused on personal experience. "I would interview people who are from rehabs or prisons, people like this one woman I met who made drugs in jail. That impacted me, and it would impact other people. I wouldn't teach it to fifth-graders, but maybe sixth- or seventh-graders, in middle school. It all depends on who I could get to come in, but people that the kids would never have met before, like maybe someone who got AIDS from bad needles or whatever. Just to show them that it can happen to them. To make it more real."
After the DARE program had been in the Denver Public Schools for several years, a 1995 study administered by the Division of Adolescent and School Health (part of the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) concluded that 84 percent of DPS students had used alcohol, 62 percent had used marijuana, and 7 percent had used cocaine. DARE Colorado's Russ Ahrens compares the DARE program to math. He points out that if you were taught math for only one year, it isn't likely that you'd remember a lot of it later. He says that there is discussion in the city about adding a junior high DARE curriculum in addition to the fifth-grade program currently in use.
"The real challenge--not just in Colorado, but in society--is more drug-prevention education, not less," says Ahrens. He says that studies show the risk factor for drug use drops 78 percent after two DARE programs.
The idea of polling former DARE students to ask how the program might be improved is still a foreign one, as no DARE administrators seem willing to admit any fault might exist in the curriculum or its approach. But Ahrens welcomes positive DARE graduates to come and speak about their experiences in a drug-free lifestyle. It doesn't look like speakers with past drug experiences will be allowed to share their stories with the kids who are asking to hear them.
"We don't think that that is a positive behavior to show kids," Ahrens says of bringing former addicts into classes. "We don't want any comparisons between what a person did wrong and what they should have done right."
After all, what's the point of being realistic when it comes to drug education?
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