Sunday, June 07, 2015

DARE to be different

I'll admit, I was miffed. My fifth grader was preaching temperance, and it was grating on me.

Smoking is bad. It causes lung cancer and wrinkles … and man, did that D.A.R.E. Officer have stories. I about jumped out of my skin at least once,” she declared in a voice like a roller coaster.

It's not as if she needed to convert me. I'd already joined that particular church long before she was born. Of course, she also knows I had my heathen moments … especially in college.

If I've learned anything from the experience of explaining how a Jolly Old Elf can travel around the world delivering presents with the help of eight tiny reindeer, it's that trust is difficult to regain once it has been lost. Let's just say, I'm not one to mince words.

But I've also learned "telling it like it is" ... isn't necessarily the same as telling it accurately.

I know drugs are bad …” she continued, ready to toss me another sobering fact she learned during the 10-week drugs and alcohol resistance program, which, critics claim, hasn't done anything in decades (statistically speaking) to curb the use of drugs among the nation's youth. “... but I don't know what they are.”

"You don't know what what are?"

"Drugs! I don't really understand what they do."

I suppose I can understand the confusion. Talk of drugs is everywhere in the pop culture landscape. From illegal narcotics, improperly used prescription medications, regulated and unregulated food additives, and even to flavorings that coat our breakfast cereals, we have a tendency to over-prescribe. People even talk about some rare side effect of physical activity known as a “runner's high.”

If I were 11 I'd be confused, too.

So what have you learned?” I asked, as she handed me an invitation to the fabled DARE graduation, an annual event that promised to be fun, festive and, as it claimed in bold type, filled with barbecued meats.

Well … I learned a song,” she explained, warming her voice before starting to sing:

D, I won't do drugs; A, Won't have an attitude; R, I will respect myself; E, I will educate me.”

Grammatically it's a bit off, but I'll admit it was a catchy tune.

The look in my child's eye told me I was being too harsh. And as I saw her ernest self deflate as she tried to recall her required D.A.R.E essay from memory, I regretted suggesting she write about D.A.R.E.'s shortcomings.

She is not a bastion of unpopular speech.

And, since I am a bastion of open mouth, insert foot, I decided to go to the Dr. Google Algorithm School of Research and Finding Out Stuff to make sure my knowledge of soundbites was at least up to date.

Turns out it wasn't.

It is certainly true that during its first 20 years, most research of D.A.R.E.'s programs suggested it was not effective in curbing drug use in any age group – elementary, middle or high school. And it's true that no substantive changes in curriculum were made until after the Department of Education removed D.A.R.E. from its National Registry of Effective Programs in 2001 because it didn't meet federal guidelines for effectiveness.

But having friendly-faced police in the classroom is a popular idea, and one that conventional wisdom embraces.

So in the early 2000s, a nearly 14-million dollar grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped develop a new program for DARE known as “Take Charge of Your Life.” It was intended to improve skills students could use to resist substance abuse, however after eight years of study, the program had mixed results. Namely, that marijuana use declined among students who had already tried it when they went through the program, but tobacco and alcohol use had increased among students who hadn't experimented prior to seventh grade.

In 2009, DARE shifted course again, this time to a program called “Keeping it REAL – a research-based model that encourages students through role playing and other exercises to Keep it R.E.A.L.:

"Refuse offers to use substances;
"Explain why you do not want to use substances;
"Avoid situations in which substances are used; and,
"Leave situations in which substances are used."

This one seems to have a promising future, at least according to Scientific American, which cited a sample of student questionnaires that indicated these D.A.R.E. students' anti-drug attitudes were higher over time than control groups.

So there it was … a shred of proof that that thing in my mouth that was garbling my speech was indeed my foot.

But I did take your advice,” said my new DARE graduate. “I couldn't promise I'll never try cigarettes or alcohol, but I know I can promise to respect myself and make my own decisions.”

I can only think her own decisions will be for the best.

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