A Los Angeles 9th grader tells the Los Angeles Times that she credits her parents, not school lessons, with helping her turn down tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. To her, the school anti-drug program seemed out of touch. Increasingly, many scholars and government researchers agree. One-size-fits-all lessons do little to prepare kids for the real drug choices they’re likely to face. By condemning all drugs as bad – not distinguishing between legitimate medications and, in moderation, alcohol – such programs can confuse kids and cheapen their own messages. “Oversimplification is just one reason most school-based drug-prevention programs don’t work,” says David Hanson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has spent 30 years studying alcohol use, abuse, and education. “The decisions kids face are more nuanced than most drug programs make them appear.”
The few programs shown to be successful are often not the ones used in schools. Some researchers even suggest that school drug-prevention programs could do harm, particularly to younger students. Nonetheless, every year, U.S. schools pour millions of dollars into substance-abuse education that hasn’t been shown to be effective – $750 million to $1 billion alone for DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, by far the nation’s largest school-based drug-prevention program, but one that is not on federally approved lists. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which includes a component known as Safe and Drug-Free Schools, every public school is supposed to provide some kind of drug-prevention education. If schools use federal funds for such efforts, they must use programs on government lists of those with “demonstrated effectiveness.” Schools may use programs not on the list if they use local funds, which many choose to do. The real worry is that the science-based research to date has found that most anti-drug education programs don’t reduce the rate at which kids abuse drugs and alcohol.