Pupils 'brainwashed' by US drugs project

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Research indicates anti-abuse programme DARE may not be right for British schools. Nicolas Barnard reports

A high-profile American drug education programme delivered to thousands of British children has serious flaws which mean it could fail in some of its most important aims, researchers say.

Pupils developed a stereotyped view of drugs, were not convinced that they could be affected and were unaware of the substances they were likely to be offered, according to health promotion workers in Nottinghamshire.

And a senior researcher at Loughborough University, carrying out parallel research for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) scheme, says its long-term benefits are untested while in the short-term it could be described as police propaganda or even brainwashing.

But DARE supporters say the Nottinghamshire research fails to present the true impact of the 17-week programme which was this year taught to all 15,000 Year 6 pupils in the county and which is increasingly being taken up countrywide.

DARE was developed by Los Angeles Police and is now the most-widely used drug education programme in the US, endorsed by America's "drugs czar" - the model for the UK Government's appointment of West Yorkshire chief constable Keith Hellawell as its own anti-drugs co-ordinator.

The programme was picked up by Nottinghamshire police and education chiefs in the early 1990s and, after a trial in Mansfield, expanded county-wide.

It is one of the highest profile programmes now being run in the increasingly competitive world of drug education, where different schemes all claim to have the best approach to substance abuse.

Education is high on the agenda of those tackling the UK's drug problem. Mr Hellawell says he has an open mind on DARE-style schemes such as Hackney's Project Charlie which showed reduced drugtaking and smoking among teenagers four years on, the Home Office reported last month.

The National Association of Headteachers last month urged an expansion of primary school drug education, saying that the age at which children began misusing was falling while the range of drugs available was wider than ever.

DARE, delivered by police officers and teachers together, aims to foster an antipathy to drugs among children and help them develop skills to resist pressure to use drugs.

Shaun Whelan and John Culver of North Nottinghamshire Health Promotion repeatedly evaluated the views and knowledge of pupils over the nine months after the end of the course. Children were given questionnaires and took part in group discussions.

They found that children became much more aware of drugs like alcohol and tobacco, but that their awareness of two of the most widely-used illegal drugs, cannabis and amphetamines, was negligible.

In a report published in Exeter University's journal Education and Health, they asked: "Is this a satisfactory state of affairs after a 17-week course?" They also said that children had a highly-stereotyped view of drugs and the people involved in them. It was a remote, male-dominated, inner-city world, where people sold and took drugs in dark alleys. Boys viewed drug-users as "demonical" - "they wear dark clothes and creep up on people," one said.

Dealers were expected to be older, stronger and difficult to resist. Yet most pupils were more likely to be offered drugs by a friend or acquaintance. When considering their own peer group, boys in particular became much more concerned about losing face.

DARE UK, which co-ordinates the programme in this country, said those problems had already been addressed. Teachers were being made more aware of local drug problems - for example crack in the cities, cannabis in the suburbs.

But criminologist Professor Philip Bean of Loughborough University, commissioned by DARE UK to draw together all available research, said the long-term effects had yet to be proved.

In the short term, he praised the enthusiasm of those running the project and their pupils and their determination to make a difference. Children were also enthusiastic, better behaved and had a highly positive attitude towards police.

"That is what police claim to be one of the important dimensions," he said. "It's what the US would call civics and we would call brainwashing. But they either get brainwashed by DARE or by something else. " Inspector David Scott, DARE UK's development officer, said secondary schools reported a difference in pupils who had followed the programme at primary school.

"Teachers are already reporting how much more mature they are. They work together to solve problems, make decisions, their self-esteem is higher. They are two years more mature than they should be."

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