Unspun

Just Say No News
Early last month, the California Department of Education deliberately distorted the findings of a school crime survey to pump up the department's image (see "Dirty Numbers on School Safety," Unspun, March 12). With an exception here and there, the local press fell for the ruse and doled out reams of favorable coverage. Less than two weeks later -- no thanks to the Education Department -- a prestigious academic journal published another study the department commissioned. This one was highly critical of the state's anti-drug education efforts. A look at the parallels and contrasts in the department's handling of the two reports is both instructive and faintly stomach-turning.

As part of her strategy for releasing results from the crime survey, which was profoundly flawed but superficially favorable to the department, state Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin papered newsrooms with press releases, ordered up briefings for school officials, and loaded reporters with custom-made statistical breakouts to "localize" their coverage. In response, daily newspapers reported about the survey in a surprising variety of mostly positive ways, ignoring a simple, overarching reality: The survey's "results" were meaningless because so many school administrators had given incomplete or inaccurate responses when answering it.

In the days since word about the anti-drug education report started to trickle out, however, Eastin has been all but invisible. This time around, her primary press handout is a dry briefing paper written by her deputy, Jane Irvine Henderson. It tersely dismisses the anti-drug study for being outdated and belittles its newsworthiness, saying it "contains no new information." It is the sort of dismissal perfectly designed to put off a harried reporter. The briefing paper contains none of the canned soundbites of the crime survey press release. In fact, no official is quoted in the paper. Most of its two single-spaced pages are spent cheerleading for the department's current drug education programs.

But that's not what the drug education report says, and, happily, most of the major regional dailies didn't parrot the Education Department line this time around. The San Jose Mercury News, West County Times, Sacramento Bee, and Oakland Tribune all ran stories that accurately reported the main findings of the report. ("Study: Anti-drug programs don't sway most kids" read the Times' headline above its March 19 story.)

The Chron and the Ex ignored the study. They shouldn't have.
Because they missed it, though, here are some of the salient aspects of the story: The survey finds fault with California's approach to anti-drug education, and the survey's findings also throw into question the underpinnings of the entire federal anti-drug education effort. Specifically, the survey finds that the "Just Say No," zero-tolerance philosophy and the widely used Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program it spawned are ineffective and even counterproductive.

Simply put, California schoolchildren told researchers that they found the simple-minded and heavy-handed "Just Say No" approach to be, well, simple-minded and heavy-handed -- and of little or no consequence to their decisions about indulging in forbidden substances. Worse still, the zero-tolerance indoctrination -- which says that any use of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco is the same as abuse -- was actually harming students, according to the study. Those who went through such indoctrination were more likely to try illegal drugs than those who didn't.

The findings wouldn't startle anyone who has watched a room full of teen-agers sit through a health lecture. There's a reason Reefer Madness is still in circulation, and it has nothing to do with drug education.

But the D.A.R.E./zero-tolerance mandate so deeply permeates the federal anti-drug education efforts that states must endorse it or risk losing their federal funds -- $40 million yearly in California's case. The mandate means officials can't even host a program for kids who have used drugs and want to persuade others to avoid them, for fear of losing federal funding.

For D.A.R.E. believers, and they are loud and legion, the California report amounts to apostasy. Deputy Superintendent Henderson put it succinctly in an interview last week: "If we published [the report], we'd lose all of our federal money."

Besides, Henderson said, the report was never intended for publication. "This was just a different kind of document," she said. But Henderson is either remarkably ill-informed or skating around the truth; the Legislature mandated the report and presumably would have wanted to hear the results.

And one of the report's authors, Joel Brown, has a different interpretation: "This study was buried for one reason and one reason only: The research findings were politically incorrect."

Brown says he has tapes of meetings between his research colleagues and school officials in Sacramento discussing how best to prepare the report for general distribution.

Even as they strive to distance themselves from the report, Henderson and the Education Department claim they have put some of its findings to use to make "a conceptual shift" in the department's anti-drug education programs. Not so much of a shift, however, as to question the feds' zero-tolerance test, even though Brown's study found that to be the fatal flaw of state anti-drug education efforts.

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