Life Skills teacher Kennedy Sabelko, right, talks with student Micah Rue, 13, lower right, in a Life Skills class at Noel Community Arts School Sept. 21, 2017. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

DARE gets a modern makeover, but Denver schools aren’t convinced it works

Two decades after Drug Abuse Resistance Education was declared dead, it and similar drug- and alcohol-prevention programs are back in Colorado classrooms.

But the finger-wagging, “Just Say No” messaging that turned DARE into a policy pariah is absent from the curriculum, which tries to persuade a generation of kids whose parents may legally consume marijuana or be struggling with prescription-drug abuse to stay clean.

The task is made more difficult in Colorado because marijuana use is legal for anyone 21 or older. This has drug-prevention programs — including DARE — focused on the health and life consequences of abusing controlled substances.

“I’m a realist. We do know there are medicinal properties in marijuana and kids will likely be exposed to its use,” said Kennedy Sabelko, a prevention specialist with Denver Public Schools.  “We need to meet kids where they are at. Just telling kids they can’t do that is not going to work.”

Locally, DARE is seen as a relic of the 1980s that never worked, so when Attorney General Jeff Sessions in July said he wanted to bring the program, originated by the Los Angeles Police Department, back to prominence in the nation’s schools, critics scoffed.

“The DARE brand is toxic,” said Andrew Freedman, former director of Marijuana Coordination for the State of Colorado, which set up the regulatory framework for the state’s pot industry. Freedman is also leading the Youth Marijuana Prevention Council, a drug-abuse prevention group.

“I know DARE strikes a nostalgic chord for a lot of adults, certainly adults of a certain generation,” said Freedman. “But what works with kids is not the same message.”

DARE proponents say the program’s critics are the ones behind the times. DARE has evolved to correct past mistakes. The program now is more aligned with scientific and social realities and is taking on new challenges such as the opioid crisis, said Richard Clayton, a retired substance-abuse researcher with the University of Kentucky and an early critic of DARE.

Clayton was asked to help advise DARE when it began to re-invent itself about 10 years ago. DARE America aligned with Penn State and adopted the evidence-based “Keepin’ It REAL” curriculum for middle school students. (REAL is an acronym for refuse, explain, avoid, leave.)

“DARE took the scientific community seriously, worked hard with them, and now DARE has become a lot more effective,” Clayton said. “My hat is off to them.”

Denver-area schools use a variety of drug- and alcohol-abuse prevention programs other than DARE, which drew heavily on local police officers to spread the scary news about using illegal drugs. The program was in nearly 75 percent of the nation’s classrooms in the late 1980s.

But the program fell out of favor and began to disappear from classrooms as research began to show that DARE wasn’t stopping kids from using drugs. A 1999 American Psychological Association study of DARE graduates concluded that its curriculum was ineffective, with the Office of the Surgeon General making the same pronouncement in 2001.

Two years later, the Government Accounting Office found that DARE programming correlated with increased drug use among some adolescents.

DARE, a nonprofit group that depends on donations from corporations, foundations and government sources, including the U.S. Department of Justice, began to founder. The program’s revenue declined to $3.7 million in 2010 from $10 million in 2002.

Meanwhile, more science- and research-based approaches were introduced in schools, including in Colorado, where medical marijuana use was approved by voters in 2000 and recreational use was legalized in 2014. This included developing curriculum after working with medical professionals and experts in adolescent brain development, school officials said.

“We began to have real conversations about the common reasons why people use marijuana,” said Katherine Plog Martinez, executive director of Whole Child Supports, a Denver Public Schools program that provides health support to its students. “We’ve gone beyond telling kids ‘Don’t do this.’ We are helping kids understand why things are bad for them and the consequences of that behavior.”

Whole Child Supports is part of a DPS initiative started in 2010 aimed at encouraging healthy activities and behavior among students, staff and teachers. As part of that effort, DPS began its own substance-abuse prevention program in 2015 that now is used in 35 of 162 schools.

DPS’s initiative and similar programs teach pot’s effects on young brains and medical marijuana’s therapeutic effects on certain patients, said  Sarah Grippa, a former special education, language arts and health teacher in Colorado. She and Molly Lotz, a former high school counselor, co-founded the Marijuana Education Initiative, which developed a curriculum that supplanted DARE. It’s used in schools, including some in DPS.

“Colorado paved the way from marijuana legalization, and we decided it was time to pave the way for effective marijuana education,” said Grippa. “We did not want to teach outdated or inaccurate material, and we had no desire to adopt the antiquated ‘Just Say No’ approach. We do not do DARE. We wanted a reality-based curriculum.”

But DARE’s  “Keepin’ It REAL” curriculum was developed with support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which backs most of the world’s research on drug abuse, and was introduced in elementary school programs in 2013.

“They picked up on prevention science and the need to be more interactive with kids,” said Clayton, who now sits on DARE’s board of directors and chairs its scientific advisory council.

“You break kids up in small groups and give them principles to study and ways to apply those principles in real life,” Clayton said. “They moved away from the specific drug stuff.”

“Keepin’ It REAL” emphasizes honesty, safety and responsibility, says Pueblo Police Sgt. Dave Woods, DARE’s Colorado coordinator.

Currently, 40 school districts serving about 5,000 students in Colorado — but all outside the Denver-metro area — use the DARE program, Woods said. The closest districts using DARE are in Breckenridge, Vail and Pueblo.

“DARE allows kids to talk with their peers about the situations they might encounter,” Woods said. “This peer-to-peer conversation is a much more effective way to deliver the message than for anyone to stand up and lecture about the harmful effects of the drugs.”

Students meet in small groups to discuss how to handle peer pressure, usually by employing the approach “refuse, explain, avoid, leave.”  “This allows students to develop their own responses to real-life situations,” Woods said.

DARE breaks its curriculum into four levels: kindergarten through fourth grade, fifth grade, middle school and high school. Each program level has a specific workbook and talking points, and each level builds on the one before it, Woods said.

The new DARE programs address the opioid epidemic, he said. “I know some people start on normal painkillers before moving on to more serious drugs such as heroin,” Woods said. “DARE saw the trend and put out specific lessons dealing with prescription abuse.”

Students also benefit by getting to know the DARE officers in their classrooms. “Students get to learn about their officers in an informal way,” he said. “I still have people from when I began teaching who will bring their own children up to me and introduce me as their DARE officer.”

Lessons cover not only drug abuse, but also bullying, internet safety and other life choices, he said.

Preliminary data show that the new DARE is enjoying some success, and the program was recognized in a 2016 report by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy for building strong refusal skills by providing students with accurate information about substance abuse.

The goal of the DPS program is to reduce use of drugs and alcohol 30 days after exposure to the curriculum, maintain abstinence for students not using substances and increase the perception of harm of using drugs. Data provided by DPS show that students using marijuana and alcohol before their introduction to the program cut their use of marijuana by 78 percent and alcohol by 65 percent by the course’s conclusion.

Sabelko, the DPS prevention specialist who works at Noel Community Arts School, a combination middle school and high school, runs the DPS Life Skills program. It’s heavy on ethics and on the consequences of one’s actions.

A recent eighth-grade class was quizzed on the ramifications of stealing or lying. Students also talked about the harm done to a young person’s brain through drug use.

The give-and-take among the students is important and more effective than a stern lecture about the evils of drugs, especially if marijuana is used at home by adults, Sabelko said.

The classwork seemed to make an impression on Noel eighth-grader Leslie Montes.

“Now I know what using can do to your brain cells. It can affect you,” she said. “It can make you stupid.”

This story was first published on