D.A.R.E. Is More Than Just Antidrug Education—It Is Police Propaganda

DARE lost its once hegemonic influence over drug education, but it had long-lasting effects on American policing, politics, and culture.

Almost all Americans of a certain age have a DARE story. Usually, its millennials with the most vivid memories of the program—which stands for “Drug Abuse Resistance Education”—who can not only recount their DARE experiences from elementary school but also the name of their DARE officer. Looking back on DARE, many recall it as an ineffective program that did little to prevent drug use, which is why they are often surprised that the program still exists.

In fact, DARE celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. Schools continue to graduate DARE classes, albeit at a far slower pace than during the program’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.

While DARE gained widespread support and resources on the presumption that it was an alternative to the supply side approaches to the drug war that relied on arrest and incarceration, my research shows that DARE was less an alternative to policing and more a complementary piece of law enforcement’s larger War on Drugs. As police fought and continue to fight a drug war primarily through violent criminalization, arrest, and incarceration, their presence in schools presents law enforcement a way to advance the police mission of defending the “law-abiding” from the “criminal element” of society by another means. In the process, DARE offers reliably positive public relations when reactionary police activities garner unwanted political critique or public protest, offering a kind of built-in legitimacy that shields against more radical efforts to dismantle police power.

DARE America, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the program, suggests that DARE has evolved into a “comprehensive, yet flexible, program of prevention education curricula.” But the program remains largely faithful to its original carceral approach and goal of legitimizing police authority through drug education and prevention. The revised curriculum still ultimately skews toward an abstinence-only, zero-tolerance approach that criminalizes drugs and drug users. It fails to embrace harm reduction approaches, such as sharing information on how students can minimize the health risks if they do choose to use drugs, even as research increasingly demonstrates the effectiveness of such methods and as knowledge about the harmful effects of hyperpunitive, abstinence-only drug education becomes more mainstream.

DARE’s reluctance to change—especially change that diminishes the police’s authority to administer drug education—should not come as a surprise. My new book, DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools, offers the first in-depth historical exploration of the once-ubiquitous and most popular drug education program in the US, charting its origins, growth and development, cultural and political significance, and the controversy that led to its fall from grace.

Although DARE lost its once hegemonic influence over drug education, it had long-lasting effects on American policing, politics, and culture. As I suggest in DARE to Say No, after the establishment of DARE and the deployment of the DARE officer as the solution to youth drug use, there was almost no approach to preventing drug use that did not involve police. In doing so, DARE ensures that drug use and prevention, what many experts consider a public health issue, continues to fall under the purview of law enforcement. It is another example of the way the police have claimed authority over all aspects of social life in the United States even as evidence of the deadly consequences of this expansion of police power have come to public attention in recent years with police killings in response to mental health and other service calls. Viewed in this light, DARE administrators continue to see the program as a reliable salve for the police amid ongoing police brutality, violence, and abuse. Revisiting this history of the preventive side of America’s long-running drug war offers vital lessons for drug education today, cautioning us to be wary of drug prevention initiatives that ultimately reinforce police power and proliferate state violence in our schools and communities.

DARE was, in fact, born out of police failure. The brainchild of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) chief of police Daryl Gates and other brass, the drug education program got its start in Los Angeles, where LAPD’s efforts to stem youth drug use had repeatedly failed. The LAPD had actually tried placing undercover officers in schools as early as 1974 to root out drug dealers, but drug use among young Angelenos only increased in intervening years, making a mockery of the police’s antidrug enforcement in schools.

Recognizing this failure, Gates looked for an alternative to supply reduction efforts which relied on vigorous law enforcement operations. He began talking about the need to reduce the demand for drugs, especially by kids and teenagers. In January 1983, he approached the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with an idea: schools needed a new type of drug education and prevention program. Working with LAUSD officials, LAPD brass developed a proposal for the use of police officers to teach a new form of substance abuse education in Los Angeles schools.

The program that emerged from that work was Project DARE. The joint LAPD and LAUSD venture launched a pilot program in the fall of 1983.

Project DARE came at a moment when the LAPD waged a violent and racist drug war on city streets. If Gates promoted DARE as an alternative, he was certainly no slouch when it came to combatting drugs. A longtime LAPD officer who had helped create the nation’s first SWAT team in Los Angeles following the 1965 Watts uprising, Gates believed in asserting aggressive police power to wage what he described as a literal war to control the streets, especially in the city’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Gates rose to chief of police in 1978 and oversaw a vigorous and violent war on drugs and gangs, relying on a destructive mix of antidrug raids and gang sweeps that targeted Black and Latinx youth. Perhaps Gates’s most notorious statement about his attitude toward the treatment of drug users came when he quipped to a congressional committee, “The casual user ought to be taken out and shot.” Gates’s militarized and flagrantly racist approach drug and crime enforcement provoked growing scrutiny from antipolice activists who called out the LAPD for its racism and abuse in the years prior to the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion.

Against this context, DARE’s focus on prevention and education in schools offered the LAPD a means to counteract this tough, violent image of the warrior cop, not to mention Gates’s own punitive rhetoric. While publicly framed as an alternative to tough antidrug policing, DARE also offered the police a means to enhance their legitimacy and bolster their institutional authority at the very same time their aggressive urban policing practices were alienating predominantly Black and Latinx working-class communities and prompting growing charges of racism and brutality within LAPD’s ranks.

after the establishment of DARE and the deployment of the DARE officer as the solution to youth drug use, there was almost no approach to preventing drug use that did not involve police.

In its first iteration, DARE began with stints of 15 (later expanded to 17) weeks to deliver the DARE curriculum in 50 classrooms. Deploying veteran police officers to the classroom beat was a calculated move. Program designers, along with many educators, believed that the youth drug crisis was so advanced that students as young as fifth graders were so savvy about drugs and drug culture that teachers were out of their depth to teach about drugs. By contrast, the thinking went, because police had experience with the negative consequences of drug use, they had much more credibility for this generation of supposed young drug savants.

But it was not only that police officers had experience with drugs that lent them credibility when compared to classroom teachers. For many law enforcement officials, DARE became a shining example of how the police could wage the drug war in the nation’s schools through prevention rather than enforcement of drug laws. Focusing on prevention and education would “soften” the aggressive image of the police that routinely appeared in exposés on crack and gang violence on the nightly news and in national newsmagazines such as Newsweek and Time. As teachers, DARE officers would promote a more responsible and professional police image.

Early returns from the DARE program pointed to an effective and successful program. Studies conducted in the mid-1980s by Glenn Nyre of the Evaluation and Training Institute (ETI), an organization hired by the LAPD to evaluate the program in its early years, found positive results when it came to student attitudes about drug use, knowledge of how to say no, and respect for the police. School administrators and classroom teachers also responded to the program with gusto, reporting better student behavior and discipline in the classroom. Students also seemed to like the program, especially since most of the evidence of student reactions came from DARE essays written in class or in DARE’s public relations material. As one DARE graduate recalled when the program ended, “I’m sad, because we can’t see our officer again and happy because we know we don’t have to take drugs.” That LAPD handpicked ETI to conduct this assessment suggests it was hardly an independent evaluation, a fact that some observers noted at the time. Nevertheless, such initial positive results gave LAPD and LAUSD officials a gloss of authority and primed them to make good on their promise of bringing the program to every student in the country.

And they very nearly did.

Within a decade of its founding, DARE became the largest and most visible drug prevention program in the United States. At its height, police officers taught DARE to fifth- and sixth-grade students in more than 75 percent of American school districts as well as in dozens of countries around the world. Officers came to Los Angeles to be trained in the delivery of the DARE curriculum. The demand for DARE led to the creation of a network of training centers across the country, which vastly expanded the network of trained DARE officers. DARE leaders also created a DARE Parent Program to teach parents how to know the signs of youth drug use and the best approach to dealing with their kids who used drugs. DARE, in short, created a wide network that linked police, schools, and parents in the common cause of stopping youth drug use.


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Everyone seemed to love DARE. Especially politicians. Congressmembers from both parties fawned over it. In congressional hearings and on the floor of congress, they lauded the program and allocated funds for drug education and prevention programming in the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (DFSCA) provisions of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Amendments to the DFSCA in 1989 referenced the use of law enforcement officers as teachers of drug education and, more directly, a 1990 amendment mentioned the DARE program by name. President Reagan was the first president to announce National DARE Day, a tradition that continued every year through the Obama presidency. Bill Clinton also singled out the program in his State of the Union address in 1996 stating, “I challenge Congress not to cut our support for drug-free schools. People like the D.A.R.E. officers are making a real impression on grade-school children that will give them the strength to say no when the time comes.” Rehabilitating the police image and sustaining police authority by supporting DARE was very much a bipartisan effort.

Political support for DARE reflected the program’s widespread popularity among several constituencies. Law enforcement officials hoped it would be a way to develop relationships with kids at the very moment they waged an aggressive and violent war on drugs on the nation’s streets. Educators liked it because it absolved them from teaching about drugs and meant teachers got a class period off from teaching. Parents, many of whom felt they did not know how to talk to their kids about drugs, also saw value in DARE.

As nominal educators, DARE officers became part of schools’ daily operation. Even as they wore their uniforms, they were unarmed and explicitly trained not to act in a law enforcement role while on campus. DARE officers would not enforce drug laws in schools but rather teach kids self-esteem, resistance to peer pressure, and how to say no to drugs. In the minds of the program’s supporters, turning police into teachers tempered the drug war by helping kids learn to avoid drugs rather than targeting them for arrest.

Officers did much more than just teach DARE classes. DARE officers embedded themselves into their communities, engaging in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. For instance, one officer coached a DARE Track Club. Another coached a football team. Some even played Santa Claus and Rudolf during the holidays. To bolster their authority on a national scale, DARE administrators constructed a public relations campaign enlisting athletes and celebrities to promote the program and facilitate trust between children and the police.

police-led, zero-tolerance drug education serves as a massive public relations campaign for law enforcement, helping to obscure racist police violence and repression.

More than just a feel-good program for the police and youth, however, law enforcement needed DARE—and not just for the purported goal of fighting drugs. DARE offered a means to burnish the public image of policing after years of aggressive and militarized policing associated with the drug war and high-profile episodes of police violence and profiling, such as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles or the discriminatory targeting of the Central Park Five in New York. By using cops as teachers, DARE administrators and proponents hoped to humanize the police by transforming them into friends and mentors of the nation’s youth instead of a uniformed enemy. For DARE’s proponents, they insisted that kids took the police message to heart. As DARE America director Glenn Levant made clear, DARE’s success was evident during the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, when, instead of protesting, “we saw kids in DARE shirts walking the streets with their parents, hand-in-hand, as if to say, ‘I’m a good citizen, I’m not going to participate in the looting.’”

The underlying goal was to transform the image of the police in the minds of kids and to develop rapport with students so that they no longer viewed the police as threatening or the enforcers of drug laws. But DARE’s message about zero tolerance for drug use—and the legitimacy of police authority—sometimes led to dire consequences that ultimately revealed law enforcement’s quite broad power to punish. The most high-profile instances occurred when students told their DARE officers about their parents’ drug use, which occasionally led to the arrest of the child’s family members. For those students who took the DARE message to heart, they unwittingly became snitches, serving as the eyes and ears of the police and giving law enforcement additional avenues for surveilling and criminalizing community drug use.

DARE was not a benign program aimed only at preventing youth drug use. It was a police legitimacy project disguised as a wholesome civic education effort. Relying on the police to teach zero tolerance for drugs and respect for law and order accomplished political-cultural work for both policy makers and law enforcement who needed to retain public investment in law and order even amid credible allegations of police misconduct and terror. Similarly, DARE diverted attention from the violent reality of the drug war that threatened to undermine trust in the police and alienate constituencies who faced the brunt of such policing. Through softening and rehabilitating the image of police for impressionable youth and their families, DARE ultimately enabled the police to continue their aggressive tactics of mass arrest, punishment, and surveillance, especially for Black and Latinx youth. Far from an alternative to the violent and death-dealing war on drugs, DARE ensured that its punitive operations could continue apace.

But all “good” things come to an end.

By the mid-1990s, DARE came under scrutiny for its failure to prevent youth drug use. Despite initial reports of programmatic success, social scientists evaluating the program completed dozens of studies pointing to DARE’s ineffectiveness, which led to public controversy and revisions to the program’s curriculum. Initially, criticism from social science researchers did little to dent the program’s popularity. But as more evidence came out that DARE did not work to reduce youth drug use, some cities began to drop the program. Federal officials also put pressure on DARE by requiring that programs be verified as effective by researchers to receive federal funds. By the late 1990s, DARE was on the defensive and risked losing much of its cultural cachet.

In response, DARE adapted. It revised its curriculum and worked with researchers at the University of Akron to evaluate the new curriculum in the early 2000s. Subsequent revisions to the DARE curriculum relied on close partnership with experts and evaluators led to the introduction of a new version of the curriculum in 2007 called “keepin’ it REAL” (kiR). The kiR model decentered the antidrug message of the original curriculum and emphasized life skills and decision-making in its place. For all the criticism and revision, however, few observers ever questioned, or studied for that matter, the efficacy of using police officers as teachers. Despite the focus on life skills and healthy lifestyles, DARE remains a law enforcement–oriented program with a zero tolerance spirit to help kids, in the words of DARE’s longtime motto, “To Resist Drugs and Violence.”

While DARE remains alive and well, its future is increasingly uncertain. The dramatic rise in teen overdose deaths from fentanyl has renewed demands for drug education and prevention programs in schools. Rather than following the DARE’s zero-tolerance playbook, some school districts have explored adopting new forms of drug education programming focused on honesty and transparency about drug use and its effects, a model known as harm reduction. The Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) Safety First drug education curriculum, for instance, is based on such principles. Rather than pushing punitive, abstinence-only lessons, Safety First emphasizes scientifically accurate and honest lessons about drugs and encourages students to reduce the risks of drug use if they choose to experiment with drugs. Most notably, it neither requires nor encourages the use of police officers to administer their programming.

The implementation of Safety First marks the beginning of what could promise to be a vastly different approach to drug education and prevention programs. It is a welcome alternative to drug education programs of the past. As the history of DARE demonstrates, police-led, zero-tolerance drug education not only does not reduce drug abuse among youth, but serves as a massive public relations campaign for law enforcement, helping to obscure racist police violence and repression. It is high time Americans refuse to take the bait. icon

This article was commissioned by Charlotte E. Rosen.

Featured image: D.A.R.E Sign at Sylvania Heights Elementary School (2021). Photograph by Phillip Pessar / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)