Friday, September 10, 2004

D.A.R.E.: Driving a Concerned Parent to Drink

Several years ago, I brought a ream of research to a parents’ meeting in Omaha’s District 66 about D.A.R.E., the federally-funded Drug Abuse Resistance Education class that our sixth-grader was starting. As a reporter and a graduate of the same school system, I figured it was a lot easier for me than for other parents to find out stuff that was kind of difficult and embarrassing to talk about, and to get it openly discussed.

I truly thought that my contribution -- proof that D.A.R.E. actually made kids use MORE drugs and alcohol than kids who hadn’t had such ‘’values-neutral’’ drug ed -- would be warmly received by my fellow concerned parents and paid school staff.


‘’So you found out D.A.R.E. doesn’t work to keep kids off drugs, alcohol and tobacco and we’re wasting our kids’ time and our taxpayers’ money? So what? Kids love D.A.R.E.! Teachers love D.A.R.E.! Everybody loves D.A.R.E.! Sit down and shut up! You want to know how to help your kids in school this year? Read to them!’’

Silently, I was protesting: gee, everybody loves Twinkies, booger jokes and staying up ‘til 3 a.m., too. Shall we pay for THEM with our tax dollars, too?

But I was so shocked and embarrassed, I backed down and shut up. All I can do is read to them? OK, I’ll read to them.

I went home and cuddled with our younger daughter, then in fourth grade, who had picked out this library book for the week from the school library: Anastasia Again by award-winning writer Lois Lowry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). I swear to God, it opened to this sentence:

‘’I think I’ll have a beer.’’ (p. 49)

Of course, being a mom, I slammed it shut and read one of our own books to her. And then later that night, being a reporter, I speed-read the book and came up with 12 references to alcohol: the 12-year-old getting a beer for Dad, Dad drinking two beers very fast, Dad letting the daughter drink the foam off his beer, the mom drinking beers when upset, sneaking vodka into a party, the kid smoking cigarettes, using air freshener to hide the smell of smoke from your parents, and, on p. 98, this gem:

‘’Anastasia thought that dirty books were generally not as gross as cigarettes, but rather like beer: interesting now and then, in small doses, but no big deal.’’

I went to school the next morning with my D.A.R.E. research and this book, suggesting that perhaps we had a problem with a drug ed program that has been proven ineffective, and on top of that we had a raging case of double messages in the schoolbooks purchased with tax dollars and offered to our 9-year-olds.

What was the reaction from our highly-paid professional public servants?

‘’First you were a troublemaker. Now you want to be a book burner. Everybody loves D.A.R.E., and everybody loves Lois Lowry’s books. You’re a whacko. Sit down and shut up.’’

Well, it wasn’t EXACTLY that bad. But it was bad.

And because I couldn’t believe it, I let myself get intimidated again. And I did sit down and shut up -- at least for a while. I figured that drug ed is the parents’ job anyway, and my husband and I were perfectly capable of keeping our own kids well-equipped to avoid the pitfalls of ‘’using,’’ which, so far, they have.

But that spring, three things happened in quick succession:

-- I drove by three boys from our daughter’s class, three D.A.R.E. ‘’graduates,’’ in the late afternoon outside the home of one of them, and they were drinking beers right down by the street. I stopped my car and stuck my head out of it; they recognized me and ran off. They were 11 years old. I didn’t know their parents very well, but they had been in the group of parents who had ridiculed me over my research. No, I didn’t report it to them or to school; what was the use?

-- The end-of-the-year assembly came up soon thereafter. The kids were all going to receive their D.A.R.E. certificates, and the one who wrote the winning essay about resisting drugs, alcohol and tobacco was going to get a prize. I was hoping against hope that it wasn’t one of the three boys I’d seen. As the parents and students gathered in the gym, the school band played a few jazzy tunes. I could not believe my ears when the band teacher, who was retiring in a few days, had the kids play a well-known drinking song -- the one PeeWee Herman danced to on a bar in his movie -- and in between verses, the student body shouted, ‘’TEQUILA!’’ I swear to God. I really liked the teacher and figured he was just poking fun as a last hurrah. But the hypocrisy was so striking. Of course, no one said a word, including me -- not any paid staffer, not any other parent. I’m not proud that I sat silent once again . . . but what was the use?

-- The next day, I got a call from a friend of mine who lives down the street from the school. ‘’I just have to tell you something because I know you’ll get a kick out of it,’’ she said. ‘’I saw a bunch of kids walking home from school last night in their D.A.R.E. T-shirts and they were SMOKING CIGARETTES. Ha ha ha! Isn’t that funny? Ha ha ha!’’

Ha . . . ha . . . ha.

This D.A.R.E. business is far from the only reason we pulled our kids out of District 66 . . . but it’s an important one. It’s not that our own children were being hurt, although technically, they were. It’s just that we knew other people’s children were not being equipped to resist the temptations that come from teen peer pressure, having access to money, and having nowhere near enough parental supervision, not to mention professional supervision of the curriculum and instruction that’s supposed to be delivered in school at taxpayer expense.

We knew that a lot of those cute, smiling kids were going to suffer and even die because they didn’t know the truth about drugs, alcohol and tobacco despite expenditures of hard-earned tax dollars and the trust of the general public . . . and that ain’t funny. It just ain’t.

But what’s the use of talking about this?

I’ll tell you what’s the use: we have to. We need to. We must. Let’s DARE to.

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