Justice  /  Argument

The Kids Who Snitched on Their Families Because DARE Told Them To

The program was about education. But it was also about surveillance.

Most Americans have at least a passing awareness of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. DARE is often ridiculed and parodied as a joke, and described as something that “didn’t work.” Oftentimes, people will laughingly remember smoking pot while wearing their DARE T-shirt. While these parodies are an important form of political critique, I found while researching my forthcoming book on the history of DARE that their lightheartedness obscures an important history of the DARE program that was much more insidious: The program turned unwitting kids like Crystal Grendell into the eyes and ears of the police.

Police had long been involved with young people through Police Athletic Leagues, community relations programs, and Officer Friendly presentations. None of these programs integrated the police into the daily life of the schools through education as completely as DARE, with the accompanying goal—and potential consequences—of making the police officer a trusted friend and mentor to millions of kids nationwide.

What Los Angeles Police Department chief of police Daryl Gates envisioned when he proposed a drug prevention program for Los Angeles schools in 1983—the idea that would later become DARE—was a program that would turn children themselves into front-line soldiers in the war on drugs. It would do so by turning the police into teachers. But DARE officers never shed their primary role as police officers invested in a zero-tolerance approach to drugs.

The DARE curriculum suggested the DARE instructor was a trusted confidant who could be told when a student found drugs or knew of someone using drugs. The DARE curriculum emphasized the “Three R’s—’Recognize, Resist, and Report’ ”—as the primary lesson for students to take with them. Exercises in the DARE Officers’ Guide for Grades K–4 workbook from the mid-1990s, for instance, asked students to identify who they should tell if they found drugs. The possible answers included “Police” alongside “Mother or Father,” “Teacher,” and “Friend.”

Students were a quick study of DARE’s message. As one student wrote in their end-of-course DARE essay contest submission in 1994, “DARE means a lot to me. We practice as if we were in real situations. In this program we learn to give excuses and report if someone offers us drugs. We learned the three R’s. Recognize, Resist, and Report.” Students took the message and ran with it, not only reporting on those who offered them drugs, but also on family and friends who used drugs.