No Drug Education: The Rise and Fall of DARE

    Praised by politicians, parents and presidents, police officers taught DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) to fifth and sixth-grade students in around 75 percent of United States school districts at the peak of its popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s. Funded by the US government, the program was exported to dozens of other countries, too. Altogether, DARE reached an estimated 50 million children worldwide.

    There were clear, inherent problems with setting up cops as drug experts and educators, preaching abstinence-only and expanding the War on Drugs into the classroom. And much to the consternation of the police, independent researchers eventually showed DARE was not only ineffective by its own standards, but potentially counterproductive. Young people continued saying yes to drugs, despite the weekly DARE class that taught them to say no.

    The program lives on, still beloved by drug warriors, though its reach and funding are greatly reduced and its curriculum revised.

    DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools (University of North Carolina Press, 2024) is a much-needed, extensively researched history of DARE. Author Max Felker-Kantor traces its origins and explains its wide-ranging impact on US society. In the process, he removes any remaining doubt that DARE was pure copaganda.

    The book illustrates just how easy it was for law enforcement to win support from educators and researchers to send uniformed police officers into schools. The curriculum was full of misinformation about drugs, and deployed scare tactics, threats and lies to dissuade drug experimentation.

    Felker-Kantor also exposes the roles of Fortune 500 companies, sports teams and celebrities in promoting DARE. It’s a fascinating, infuriating read that will leave readers shaking their heads and asking how anyone could have thought the program a good idea.

    Dr. Felker-Kantor, an associate professor of history at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, spoke with Filter about the rise and fall of DARE. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


    Helen Redmond: DARE was started by Daryl Gates, who was the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for 14 years. What’s his backstory? 

    Max Felker-Kantor: Daryl Gates was the personal driver for William Parker, who was the chief of police in the 1960s. So he was kind of groomed to be chief and came up in this era. Parker is infamous for the Thin Blue Line ideas of racist policing in Los Angeles during the 1950s and 1960s.

    Gates is influenced by that. He’s there during the Watts uprising in 1965, and after that created the first SWAT team. So he’s deeply invested in the Los Angeles Police Department.

    During the ‘70s, he was tasked with this question of drugs and schools. He wrote a report about the “School Buy Program.” This program put undercover officers into Los Angeles area high schools to try to arrest drug dealers. The program lasts for over a decade. By the early 1980s, Daryl Gates, who’s now the LAPD chief, is ramping up the War on Drugs—drug raids, drug task forces. That gets reinforced by the Reagan administration when the president calls for a War on Drugs, too.

    Gates comes up with this idea of a prevention program to address the demand for drugs by kids. He went to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in the spring of 1983 and said, “We need to teach kids how to not use drugs, to say no.” His idea is to use police officers as the teachers. The DARE program was piloted in the fall of ‘83, and Gates is at the center of all of this. He partners with Ruth Rich from the LAUSD, who was a curriculum specialist, and DARE is launched.

    “Forget about the drug education part of this: Just getting the police into schools to change how they’re viewed by kids is really the goal.”


    HR: Why have schools allowed this? You do mention there are teachers and administrators who are opposed to it. But it really seems like the majority of schools needed no persuasion to welcome police into their classrooms.

    MFK: One thing is that they’re searching for solutions to the drug war. It’s a relatively easy program for them to adopt because they’re not paying for it. The police are donating their time and funding it, by and large. Then it becomes a nonprofit and gets federal funding. The teachers get a class period off, and some believe the police are the drug experts.

    There is a sense among teachers that they don’t know how to talk about drug use. Some school administrators see DARE as beneficial, especially in communities of color, if it is a “high crime” area. Now, let’s put to the side that the police are not experts in drug prevention or health experts, and they’re not really teachers either. So some educators see this partnership as positive, that it would be really good if the police can come and be friends and trusted mentors to students.

    The point I’m making in the book is the police are trying to counter the image of them waging this aggressive War on Drugs in the streets. So you get these images of  hard-charging cops that kids might not want to trust because they’re just out there to arrest you and break in your door. And I think the schools buy into that as well.


    HR: So DARE is seen as a way to mitigate the racism and violence of police toward Black and Brown people? And yet “drug education” is a cover for core components of authority, obedience and doing what the police tell you to do. Of course, they can’t come out and say that.

    MFK: Right. That’s one of the main arguments of the book—that it’s touted as drug prevention, but if you start to actually read through all the materials and really listen, it was about all that other stuff. It was about reshaping the image of the police.

    Forget about the drug education part of this: Just getting the police into schools to change how they’re viewed by kids is really the goal. Because the Black and Brown kids, when they leave the school grounds, they’re facing policing in the streets and being arrested and swept up in gang and drug raids. The early program evaluations done by the Evaluation and Training Institute, some of the questions they asked were if students were more respectful of the police, and do they see them as trustworthy? So they were actually evaluating that part of the curricula, alongside attitudes towards drugs, which I think is telling about what the program was really about.

    “I’ve heard from people of color in LA. They said the cops just came in and yelled at them and said they were gang members, or their mothers were ‘crack moms.’”


    HR: What are the differences between DARE taught in cities versus the suburbs? Race and class factor in, right?

    MFK: Yes, and it’s a great question. And it’s one that I would still like to find more evidence of, quite frankly, because that was my question the whole time. I have some anecdotal evidence I can give you that’s not in the book directly.

    Technically, the DARE curriculum was the same everywhere. All the officers are taught the same program and the standardization was a selling point. Now, they did say that if gangs aren’t an issue in your community, you can skip that lesson.

    I had a DARE class as a fifth-grader in Salt Lake City, where I grew up. They talked to us about gangs. And it was not like gangs were an issue like they were in Los Angeles. But they instilled the fear that these LA drug trafficking gangs are spreading across the country. That was actually something they talked about, like, “Oh, we see the Bloods and Crips have these networks, and they’re trafficking drugs.”

    I remember, so clearly, being scared out of my mind that some gang members were going to come make me be in a gang. And I’m a white, Jewish kid from Salt Lake City.

    I’ve heard from people of color in LA who grew up in the 1980s. They said the cops just came in and yelled at them and said they were gang members, or their mothers were crack moms.” So the messaging was different at the individual level in these different spaces, urban versus suburban.


    HR: Walk us through how the DARE officer operates in school.

    MFK: The DARE officer is always in uniform [although] they never shed the idea that they’re not law enforcement [in their DARE role]. They were supposed to be unarmed. I distinctly remember, and people I’ve talked to remember, that some had their guns with them.

    They dedicated an hour every week, for 17 weeks, where they would teach the 17-lesson curriculum. They put a question box in the classroom that was for anonymous tips. DARE officers would often stay at the school for recess, or even for the whole school day—doing one-off assemblies, or one-off lessons with younger kids down to first and second grade.

    In one school in LA, they formed a track club, and one police officer was a football coach.They attended school holiday events. I have a story where one police officer dressed up as Santa Claus. They’re interacting with kids in lots of different ways.

    “Let’s get the athletes and all these entertainers into this work, because they’re role models.”


    HR: DARE marketing was brilliant. They created the iconic DARE T-shirt, the DARE bear, a band called “In Hot Pursuit” and the “Kiddie Cops.” They even placed coin donation containers with the DARE logo in mini-marts. What’s behind all that?

    MFK: Branding is important. They hired a public PR firm from the beginning. So they’re cognizant of needing to sell the program, and branding and marketing—not just to kids, but to politicians and for corporate sponsorship. Kentucky Fried Chicken was a sponsor. They sell lots of merchandise with the DARE logo: T-shirts, bumper stickers, license plates, matchbox cars, pens, pencils and backpacks. It’s bringing money into the program. 


    HR: Your book also details how Hollywood celebrities and famous athletes got on board for DARE, including Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Arsenio Hall, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Sugar Ray Leonard.

    MFK: The LA Lakers were doing stuff for DARE in the ‘80s, and their wives organized fundraising walks. It’s tied in with Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.” They wanted to deglamorize drugs and not promote drug use on TV shows or in movies. If kids see athletes using drugs with fancy cars, they’re going to want to do drugs, too. Let’s get the athletes and all these entertainers into this work, because they’re role models.

    The irony is, Johnny Depp and others, we know they were doing drugs the whole time. 


    HR: DARE erased social determinants of drug use. The focus was always on the individual, not the environment. That’s deliberate, isn’t it?

    MFK: Yeah. It’s about individual and personal responsibility. If you use drugs and get caught, it’s your fault because you’ve been told what the choices and consequences are.

    “Multiple studies and independent evaluations eventually lead to continued bad publicity. Politicians start asking: Why are we funding this if it doesn’t work?”


    HR: I find the collaboration between Dr. Ruth Rich, a health educator, and the researchers at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with the police to be so disturbing. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded a $14 million grant to revamp the DARE curriculum. What are your thoughts about that?

    MFK: I was unable to talk to Ruth Rich. She passed away. I don’t think they necessarily would have viewed it as a police-forward program to begin with, because they thought it was a partnership. But then it just gets taken over by DARE America, by the police. I take them at their word that they were really concerned and wanted to develop a good drug prevention program for kids.

    Some were wary that the police were the instructors of this program. The argument I’m making in the book is that this collusion allowed the police to infiltrate and be part of the normal operations of schools. DARE enabled them to increase their footprint; they became the school safety officers. I’m pretty critical of that. From my perspective, it should be about public health programming and we should have educators doing this work.


    HR: What brought DARE down from its dominant position? Was it the Parents Against DARE groups, or the child informants that put parents in prison on drug charges? Or was it the irrefutable evidence that the program didn’t work?

    MFK: First of all the police denied that DARE didn’t work, despite the evidence. Glenn Levant, a police officer and a former president of DARE America, said there is nothing wrong with this program, you guys are all wrong.

    There was a real defensiveness and bullying of the researchers who I’ve talked to. There were threats against them not to publish their studies. There were lawsuits.

    I think this is the reason why there’s a shift: It’s this combination of multiple studies and independent evaluations that eventually leads to continued bad publicity. A study that got major headlines was one showing suburban kids actually did more drugs after completing DARE.

    Politicians start asking: Why are we funding this if it doesn’t work? We want a program that actually works.

    Children reporting their parents’ drug use helped to build Parents Against DARE groups. Parents started to raise issues, like we don’t want the cops in our schools either spying on our kids or spying on us as families. The Crystal Grendell case got national press attention. The young girl informed the Maine police that her parents smoked pot, and they were both arrested. 



    Top photograph (cropped) by Phillip Pessar via Public Books/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools, by Max Felker-Kantor, is published by University of North Carolina Press.

    • Helen is Filter‘s senior editor and a multimedia journalist. She is on the methadone, vaping and nicotine train. Helen is also a filmmaker. Her two documentaries about methadone are Liquid Handcuffs and Swallow THIS. As an LCSW, she has worked with people who use drugs for over two decades. Helen is an adjunct assistant professor and teaches a course about the War on Drugs at NYU. She lives in Harlem.

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