DARE Marks a Decade of Growth and Controversy : Youth: Despite critics, anti-drug program expands nationally. But some see declining support in LAPD.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

DARE, the pioneering and controversial anti-drug program invented by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District, celebrates its 10th anniversary today amid warm congratulations for its accomplishments and uncertainty about its future.

Members of Congress have sponsored a resolution commending the founders and backers of DARE, and the program enjoys bipartisan support from California to Washington. It is expanding annually, bolstered by millions of dollars in private contributions and federal help. But DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, also has been scorched by criticism and weakened by what some backers see as tepid support from the current leadership of the LAPD.

It was 10 years ago this month that LAPD officers for the first time ventured into Los Angeles classrooms to teach children DARE's approach to fighting drugs. From the start, some critics faulted the program for its psychological methods and for relying on police officers to teach children about drugs. But supporters far outnumbered skeptics; it spread rapidly beyond the borders of Los Angeles.

Today, 5,200 communities in all 50 states have DARE programs, and more than 5.5 million children this year will learn about drugs through police officers using the DARE curriculum. At home, DARE has been called the first test of community-based policing, a law enforcement notion favored by Police Chief Willie L. Williams that involves bringing police officers into contact with the communities they patrol.

Yet, despite Williams' stated support for DARE, the program's directors have fought increasingly difficult battles to maintain LAPD backing for the drug-fighting program. Once staffed by more than 100 LAPD officers, DARE now is authorized to have 92 officers assigned to it. Only about 65 actually are working with the program full time.

Department sources say DARE suffers from its association with former Chief Daryl Gates, who retired last year after a bruising battle, and from the push to put more officers on patrol. Faced with a shortage of money and police officers, units throughout the LAPD are being raided to put more officers in patrol assignments--a central promise of Mayor Richard Riordan's recent campaign.

Given the political pressure to boost patrols, DARE has been just one of many tempting targets, LAPD officials say.

"A lot of people look at the officers assigned to DARE and say: 'Gee, I sure could use those officers in radio cars,' " said Glenn A. Levant, a recently retired LAPD deputy chief who now runs DARE America. "I call those people Neanderthals."

Neither Levant nor other DARE directors blame Williams for the decline, but they worry that the LAPD is backing away from the program even as other departments are eagerly embracing it.

"The plan is not to let DARE wither and die," Levant said. "But that's what's happening."

While DARE struggles to get resources from the department that gave it birth, it continues to win adherents across the nation. An array of private contributors donate to the program, supplying everything from staff salaries to DARE's modest Westside headquarters, located in a light industrial area of Marina del Rey.

Its corporate backers include some of California's best-known executives, and its national sponsors are equally influential. Partly through their help, DARE has expanded by leaps and bounds, far surpassing the program that even Gates envisioned when he launched it in 1983.

More than 11,000 police officers across the nation currently teach the DARE curriculum, a 17-week program that blends a variety of lesson plans around a single theme: Boosting the self-esteem of students so that they can resist the temptation to use drugs.

Although DARE today is the nation's largest drug education program, its roots were modest. In fact, DARE was born not in an effort to create a national program but rather out of the LAPD's frustrating inability to thwart high school drug use using traditional law enforcement techniques.

"We had 'buy programs' in the schools where undercover officers would buy drugs from students," Gates said. "We kept buying more and more. It was appalling, depressing. I finally said: 'This is crazy. We've got to do something.' "

Gates took his concerns to the school board, where some officials were wary but agreed to explore the idea of a joint LAPD-school district program to combat drug abuse. Ruth Rich, the district's health education specialist, wrote the first DARE curriculum, modeling it on work that had been done at USC. When school opened in September, 1983, the first group of LAPD police officers took DARE to the classroom.

Officers taught the curriculum, a controversial wrinkle in DARE because some critics believed it would be better handled by doctors or teachers. But Gates wanted uniformed officers to do the teaching. Rich agreed.

"There's a gap between the street and the classroom," said Rich, who still oversees the program for the school district. "Police officers are believable on this subject. When it comes to drugs, they're more credible than a teacher."

Putting officers in the classroom also had another benefit for law enforcement, one that underlies the concept of community-based policing. Backers said students would develop positive relationships with police, an otherwise difficult task since most encounters with officers come in stressful situations.

Critics of DARE began raising questions early in its history. Ten years later, they are challenging its methods and its effectiveness with increasing vigor.

"Generally, evaluators have reported that DARE has a positive influence on students' knowledge regarding drugs," a 1991 study by the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago found. "However, the effectiveness of DARE in altering students' drug use behavior has yet to be established. . . . The available findings indicate that DARE either had no behavioral effects or had a significant effect for only a few substances."

A soon-to-be-released study being undertaken by a North Carolina group has found that DARE teaches children about drugs and gives them a more positive outlook toward police. But it does not, researchers in that study found, keep children from using drugs.

William Hansen, an associate professor of public health sciences and one of the authors of the USC program that served as a model for DARE, accuses the program of failing its central mission.

"There's a lot of philosophy that's going to come out about DARE and why it doesn't work," Hansen said. "It doesn't change in kids the things that cause drug use."

A Ft. Collins, Colo., group has gone the furthest in its attack. That group, called Parents Against DARE, protested that the program uses discredited psychological techniques. It recently succeeded in convincing school district officials there that federal law requires parents to give their approval before their children can be put through the program.

That was not enough for Gary Peterson, a Ft. Collins businessman who started Parents Against DARE two years ago.

"I completely pulled my child out of the school system because of this," said Peterson.

Peterson's criticism is rooted in what he says is the fundamental psychological flaw of DARE: the notion that children should be told they have a choice about using drugs. That criticism is echoed by some psychologists.

"Children have a choice about drug use only in the same sense that they have a choice to drive up the off-ramp of Highway 5," said William Coulson, a Northern California psychologist and former member of the Federal Technical Panel on Drug Education Curricula. "They can do that, but it's adult stupidity to teach them that's a legitimate choice."

Coulson and some other psychologists also dispute DARE's assumption that self-esteem combats drug use. In fact, Coulson said, children "don't need to be told they're wonderful, they need to be given direction."

While those critics have taken issue with DARE's methods, the program also has suffered from several highly publicized cases of young people turning in their parents on drug charges. One case in Maine attracted national attention, while others continue to crop up periodically. In 1992, a 12-year-old Canoga Park boy who had just finished DARE called police to report his father for beating his mother and selling marijuana.

Levant has heard all the criticisms, but he is unfazed. He says DARE officers are told not to encourage youngsters to snitch on their parents, and he disputes the studies suggesting that DARE's effect on drug use may be minimal.

"Anytime you've got something that's popular, people will attack it," Levant said.

Rich of the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed. "If I didn't think it had a positive effect on children, I wouldn't have it here," she said.

Moreover, while DARE has drawn criticism, it also has won converts. Councilwoman Rita Walters, who initially saw DARE as a publicity stunt by Gates, says that over the years she has attended various DARE functions and admired what she saw.

"It's difficult to measure the results of a program like this," Walters said. "But it seemed to me to be having some very positive results."

To bolster his case, Levant produces a study of his own, a recent Gallup poll of DARE graduates. According to that study, more than 90% of the young people polled said that DARE helped them avoid drugs and alcohol and deal better with peer pressure.

But DARE backers say the real proof is not in studies or surveys but in the grateful responses of parents, teachers and children nationwide. Even critics concede that DARE is enormously popular, and Levant reels off examples of children and parents who have written or called to express their thanks for the program.

"Knocking DARE is like kicking your mother or saying that apple pie doesn't taste good," Levant said. "For 10 years, I've been living and breathing DARE, and it's all been about helping kids. That's our program, and that's what we're going to keep on doing."

What is DARE?

Here are some highlights of DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education:

* FOUNDED: September, 1983, by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

* THEN: Original program involved 10 police officers and served 50 Los Angeles schools.

* NOW: Program directors estimate that 5.5 million children will receive the DARE curriculum this year. Schools in all 50 states use the material.

* PROS: DARE supporters say the program teaches children self-esteem and ways to resist drugs. They also argue that it helps build relationships between children and police officers, and strengthens ties between law enforcement and schools.

* CONS: Critics of DARE say that its psychological methods are flawed and that it fails to deter drug use. They argue that there is no scientific evidence that the program is effective.

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