Politics trumped science once again, as President Bush officially proclaimed April 14th "National D.A.R.E. Day." Heaping praises on the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program, Bush said, "Across America, law enforcement officers, volunteers, parents, and teachers are helping to send the right message to our nation's youth about illegal drugs and violence through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program."
But despite 22 years of drug-free pledges, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and plenty of abstinence-only rhetoric, the program does not seem to be getting the "right message" across to the D.A.R.E. generation, many of whom are saying "maybe," "sometimes," or even "yes" to alcohol and other drugs.
The 2004 Monitoring the Future survey of drug and alcohol use by high school students revealed that 75 percent of students admitted to using alcohol prior to graduation and half had tried illegal drugs.
Evaluations over the past decade have consistently found, as the General Accounting Office noted after assessing the research, that "D.A.R.E. had no statistically significant long-term effect on preventing youth illicit drug use." The surgeon general, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education, and the American Federation of Teachers have deemed D.A.R.E. ineffective. And although D.A.R.E. has tried to re-invent itself of late, preliminary evaluations are faring no better than those of the original, which is the program still currently used in a majority of school districts in America.
By officially praising D.A.R.E., Bush not only demonstrates a fundamental disregard for science but also contradicts his own education policy. The No Child Left Behind Act recommends only programs approved by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. D.A.R.E. is glaringly absent from that list of "evidence-based" drug-education programs.
While the Bush administration continues to tout an ineffective program, a growing number of big cities are refusing to go along. Most notably, Los Angeles, birthplace of the program, gave D.A.R.E. the ax last year. And after receiving a scathing report from the Independent Budget Office, New York City also abandoned D.A.R.E. last year, citing ineffectiveness as well as a savings of $2.5 million to the city.
Sacrificing sound programs in favor of doctrine does a palpable disservice to teens and is also apparent with the parallel issue of sexuality education. The House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, chaired by Representative Henry Waxman, has been looking at federally funded, abstinence-only sex-education programs, which now dominate the terrain, and found that such programs deliver distorted and inaccurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
Just this month, authors of a joint Yale/Columbia University research study reported on the impact of teenage virginity pledges pushed by the "True Love Waits" movement. In the prestigious Journal of Adolescent Health, sociologists Hannah Bruckner and Peter Bearman revealed that the majority of pledgers ultimately had sex before marriage. Pledgers were less likely to use condoms than their non-pledging counterparts, and those who remained virgins were "more likely to substitute oral and/or anal sex for vaginal sex."
The ultimate item of bad news: There was no difference in rates of sexually transmitted disease in pledgers and non-pledgers.
Abstinence, of course, would be ideal for teenagers. But in the end, we have to accept the reality that young people make their own decisions, and they are not always consistent with our preferences.
When policymakers advocate rigid, abstinence-only drug- and sex-education programs of questionable value, to the exclusion of safety-oriented approaches that dare to provide an honest, comprehensive fallback strategy, they put our young people in real jeopardy. If sex- and drug-prevention programs prohibit the discussion of practical information about how to take precautions if one is not abstinent, they are neither education nor protection. n
Marsha Rosenbaum is the author of Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens, Drugs and Drug Education.