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Talk is sometimes cheap, especially when it comes to convincing youngsters they should stay away from drugs.

Within a month after one Buffalo police officer had taught an anti-drug DARE class to fifth graders, she arrested several of the pupils who had graduated from the course.

Many other officers, especially in Buffalo's inner city, have had similar experiences, sometimes making drug arrests of youngsters wearing DARE T-shirts.

Who could blame the police for wondering out loud whether the nation's best-known program to battle drug use among schoolchildren really works? And, it seems, they are not alone in their concerns.

A national debate is gradually gaining more voices, as several studies emerge claiming DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, does not get the job done.

"This is just beginning to strike at the local level, that DARE might not be working," said Denise Gottfredson, a University of Maryland criminology professor who has analyzed DARE for the Justice Department. The university's report, released in February 1997, is one of the more recent criticisms of the program.

"DARE does not work to reduce substance use," the Maryland researchers concluded.

They faulted what was taught in DARE, how it was taught and the use of police officers to teach it.

In 1994, the Research Triangle Institute, a university-affiliated research organization in Durham, N.C., concluded that the program's short-term effectiveness is small and less than the success of programs that emphasize social skills and use interactive teaching strategies, such as role-playing, instead of lectures.

"DARE's limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program's popularity and prevalence," the researchers wrote. "An important implication is that DARE could be taking the place of other, more beneficial drug-use curricula that adolescents could be receiving."

Another RTI study, released earlier this year, surveyed 10,000 children in 19 school districts, starting when they were in fifth and sixth grade and ending when they were in eighth and ninth grade. The students were asked about drug use, peers' drug use, their attitude toward drugs and perceived consequences of drug use.

While this study did not specifically focus on DARE, it is the most common prevention program in schools. One major finding was that drug-prevention programs have little or no effect on student drug use.

Still, in many communities, questioning DARE is like thumbing your nose at the flag and motherhood, particularly at a time of rising teen drug use. It is taught in three-fourths of the nation's school districts and has broad political support from Congress and the White House.

The main part of DARE, which receives tens of millions of dollars in federal, state and local aid throughout the country, provides youngsters with 45-minute-long weekly sessions over 17 weeks, focusing on lessons taught by uniformed officers on how to resist drugs.

Students also learn ways to build self-esteem and make decisions and are taught alternatives to using drugs. The classes use lectures, group discussions, question-and-answer sessions, workbooks and role-playing.

Thousands of Western New York youngsters have graduated from DARE and, despite rising concerns over the program, it remains popular.

Of a national study that determined DARE graduates were just as likely to experiment with drugs when they entered high school as other students who had never attended DARE, Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, one of DARE's leading local supporters, argued:

"What the study's researchers failed to address in looking at the two groups of students was whether there were differences in the level of intensity in the experimentation, and how long the experimentation stage lasted."

But DARE critics aren't so interested in the studies. They say real-life circumstances often erase the anti-drug messages preached in the classroom. They say DARE is a program designed for success strictly in the low-crime suburbs, not drug-ravaged inner-city neighborhoods.

Kerlikowske, however, believes that by making use of DARE instructors who are "street-smart," the program does make inroads, even for those youngsters living on the city's meanest streets.

"When the officers are in the classroom, they understand what these kids face at home or in the neighborhood," he said. "The officers become role models, provide structure and break down communication barriers."

If you don't believe that, he suggests attending a DARE graduation ceremony.

"You can't quantify the feelings and admiration and respect and love these kids exhibit toward the officers. It's unbelievable. For all the critics of DARE, I invite them to attend a graduation."

The suburbs, he added, have their share of drug havoc.

"Every suburban DARE officer I've spoken with has plenty of horror stories of drug use by parents. The children tell them about the parties their parents go to where there are drugs and drug use right in the home," Kerlikowske said.

But members of his own department wonder how many suburban parents are making their livelihood selling drugs.

The critics, who asked that their names be omitted, think few parents in suburbia are drug dealers, but that in the economically strapped city it is not uncommon for parents to sell drugs.

Local DARE organizers are realistic, saying DARE alone cannot conquer drug abuse among Western New York's children. "If the schools, the parents and neighborhoods all provide additional support to what the kids learn, then we have a much better chance to prevent drug use," Kerlikowske said.

This may be so, but the youngsters have formidable obstacles to overcome -- crack houses, abandoned houses, vacant lots, absentee parents and the absence of neighborhood support, which all make for ripe drug-dealing territories.

"Many of these inner-city kids go home to nothing, no parent, no neighborhood, nothing," a Buffalo police official said. "DARE doesn't go far enough. They need to get into the homes of these children and find out what they're going home to and address that need first."

In Amherst, Detective Sgt. Michael N. Torrillo, who heads a staff of seven DARE officers, says limitations on the length and amount of times they see the students prevent the program from taking root in the minds of youngsters.

Using a lesson in learning to tell time, he illustrated his point:

"Try to teach a kid how to tell time by pulling out a clock for 45 minutes once a week for 17 weeks, with the kid not seeing a clock any other time during that period. You think he's going to know how to tell time?

"The DARE program is exactly the same unless there is reinforcement at home and the parents continue the education and the message."

Alone, Torrillo says, DARE will not stop children from using drugs.

On the positive side, the program provides a chance for officers to meet children in a non-confrontational setting -- the classroom -- which allows friendships to start that might not otherwise occur.

"And that makes up for some of DARE's shortcomings," Torrillo said.

DARE's best efforts may be at influencing the huge number of students who are somewhere in the middle when it comes to opinions on whether to experiment with drugs, according to Lt. Robert A. Schifferli, who supervises the Town of Tonawanda Police Department's six officers whose duties include teaching DARE classes.

"It's a good program for fence sitters because hopefully it will deter them and they will follow the right path or delay them until they are of a more mature age," Schifferli said.

William Modezeleski, the U.S. Education Department's director of safe and drug-free schools, said education officials have met with DARE's scientific board to encourage it to make some changes, and the board is cooperative.

A program he cited as effective is Life Skills Training, a three-year course developed by Gilbert Botvin at Cornell University Medical College. It stresses resisting drugs, as well as skills for independence, personal control, communicating effectively, overcoming shyness and developing healthy friendships.

Studies over the past 16 years have shown that this program can produce 59 percent to 75 percent lower levels of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use.

Charlie Parsons, the executive director of DARE, which was created in 1983 by the Los Angeles Unified School District, insists DARE does work and remains open to suggestions.

And, he says, although some school districts nationally have dropped the program, overall it is expanding. This school year, New York City adopted the program.

"We are constantly revising the program," Parsons said. "Some of the research describes DARE as it used to be . . . I have letters from parents who say DARE saved their kids' lives."

Trying to measure the results of drug-prevention programs, Parsons said, is complicated. His message to the researchers: "If you can tell us a way to improve this program, we will do it.

"The terrible mistake would be if DARE went away," he said. "Nothing would replace it. No one will ever replicate. Let's not attack DARE. Let's not destroy DARE."

News wire services contributed to this report.