Dear Homeroom:

My child's fifth-grade class just completed the 17 sessions of DARE, leaving me wondering whether the time allotted for this program is worth the disruption of class work.

My child was 9 years old during the program. She and her friends still hold hands. Some still sleep with stuffed animals, and most parents we know still shield their 9-year-olds from the evening news. Yet the DARE program explained to her the difference between Mexican heroin and Asian heroin, that drugs are injected as well as inhaled, and that there is such a thing as an 8-year-old alcoholic.

Are there any studies that have evaluated the effectiveness of the DARE program or the question of age appropriateness?

Mary Kay Ricks

Silver Spring

Let me back up a minute for those readers who don't know what DARE is.

DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, is a national program run by law enforcement agencies. In this county, the city and county police departments and the sheriff's office run it. Just about all public elementary schools in Montgomery County have DARE, and many private ones as well. (Some county middle schools follow up with the COP program--Community Oriented Policing--to talk more about drugs and alcohol but also about conflict resolution and ways to avoid violence.)

Part of DARE is something of a throwback to the old Officer Friendly programs, bringing a police officer into the schools to make kids trust and feel comfortable around officers.

The other part is a curriculum that mostly has to do with decision making--teaching children that seemingly innocent choices can lead to bad consequences. The officers also teach a lot about alcohol and drugs, including tobacco, but police Sgt. Bill Whalen, who helps run the county's DARE program, says that specifics like the difference between Mexican heroin and Asian heroin are discussed only in answer to questions from children. "Some kids come with a lot of information," he says.

Whalen says it is important to start educating children about drugs and alcohol before middle school, where they are exposed to drug use. "Eighth-graders in this county have either witnessed someone else their age or have firsthand knowledge of someone their age using drugs or alcohol," he says. That's why DARE is in fifth grade, the last grade before middle school.

Whether the program is effective or age-appropriate is really unknown. Just about every survey of research on school-based drug programs I've seen has concluded that we don't know whether any of them, including DARE, are effective at preventing the illegal use of drugs and alcohol by teenagers and young adults.

But, honestly, it's a difficult thing to get a handle on. We've seen drug use increase during the time DARE and other programs have been in place, but Whalen asks, "Would the increase have been greater without it?" and there is no answer.

Without making great claims to the effectiveness, Whalen says: "If nothing else, it's a positive message from a positive role model. Kids are going to make their own decisions, but we've at least given them the information."

Although I like the Officer Friendly part, I remain a skeptic both about whether DARE is effective and whether schools are the right venue for this kind of program. I worry that DARE veers from being educational to being propagandistic, which is by its nature noneducational.

So--I was wondering if there are any high school or college students who went through the DARE program in fifth grade who could reflect on its effectiveness, either for themselves or for their friends. Did it help them get out of awkward peer-pressure situations gracefully? Did the information they learned in DARE help them avoid a situation that, looking back on, they recognize as dangerous? Was it a useful way to spend 13 or so hours?

This won't be what anyone would call a scientific survey, but it might be interesting anyway.

To move on to a new topic: Last week I ran a letter from a graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School that has prompted a lot of discussion. Two answers follow. This is an important discussion to have, and I'm glad to have started it. If you want to read last week's column, go to www.washingtonpost.com, and find the Montgomery Weekly section for Jan. 13, or do a search on Karin Chenoweth. Or be low-tech and go to the library.

Magnet Schools

Dear Homeroom:

As a graduate of the Montgomery Blair and Takoma Park magnet programs I take issue with Andrew Malone's implications about magnet schools in general and Blair in specific. I cannot speak for the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery, and I wish Mr. Malone would not speak for Blair.

First of all, I do not refer to Blair as a "ghetto school." I have a great fondness for the people and the school at 313 Wayne Ave. with whom I shared four years of my life. I take great pride in having attended a school with such a rich, diverse background as Blair. My experiences at Blair played a heavy role in seeking out diversity in college and helped lead to my eventual decision to attend the University of Maryland. I find no shame in the fact that my school was located in a majority minority area. Rather, I found it to be one of the greatest opportunities of my life.

As far as the integration between the magnet and the "regular" population at Blair, it is true that this integration is not total on the large scale.

However, on an individual level, integration was as total as one desired it to be. I interacted and made friends with nonmagnet students on a number of levels. Through my foreign language, history, English, photography, and AP science classes, cross-country team, and extracurricular clubs such as the literary magazine, Building Bridges (which worked toward harmony among those of different races, ethnicities and sexual preferences), and the ski club, I found myself engaged with a broad spectrum of the populations at Blair. During my time at Blair magnets were engaged on an extracurricular level with everything from the football and basketball teams, to cheerleading, to the SGA.

Those who desired integration found it. Admittedly, there were those who did not seek integration. But even if one chose to be isolated at Blair, one could not help but be faced with the reality of the diversity at Blair simply by walking through the halls every day and being part of that community. Whether or not those isolated individuals matured to some extent, or formulated racist attitudes from that wonderfully diverse environment, I cannot know. But they had an opportunity unparalleled in Montgomery County and much of this nation.

While at Blair, twice I seriously considered leaving the program, once for college and once for my home school of Watkins Mill. While the excellent education I was receiving at Blair was a factor in my eventual decision not to leave, the most important factor in my decision was the people of Montgomery Blair. I could not leave both my friends and the general population of Blair that has been so crucial to my maturity as a member of this great multicultural society.

Not everyone who attended the magnet program at Blair achieved a true level of integration with the rest of the school, but for at least one of us who did, the experiences in the diversity of Blair have had a profound impact on his life.

Anthony Irish

Gaithersburg

Montgomery Blair Class of 1998

Dear Homeroom:

Thank you for printing the letter about the magnet programs. What an honest letter that was. It is important for us to hear from the students about their experience. He eloquently described the divisive effect of the magnet programs on the schools in which they are located.

I was in agreement with his letter until the last few paragraphs. All children will be bored in classes where the material does not challenge them. What about the many able students in the county who are not in magnet programs though they could be if more slots were created--or if the regular programs were given the support and resources to make them as challenging as the magnets?

Betsy Devlin-Foltz

Silver Spring

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.