Michigan Schools Advised To Drop Breathing Exercise

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The Michigan Department of Education has advised local educators to drop the use of a deep-breathing exercise for students that some parents in the state have linked with "New Age" religious practices.

The exercise is included in the Michigan Model for Comprehensive Health Education--a recommended curriculum that has been adopted by many districts across the state.

Instead, educators will use other relaxation techniques, such as "counting to 10" and "sitting tightly and thinking."

Some parents have charged that the breathing exercises originated in witchcraft and cause children to have "out of body" experiences. Stories have been circulated in the state about an 8-year-old girl who supposedly was taken on an internal "mini-vacation" and "left there," and about a kindergartener who started using deep breathing to drown out the sound of her mother's voice when she was being disciplined.

Statewide, approximately 1 million students in kindergarten through 8th grade are taught health using the model. The Michigan P.T.A. and most district school beards have voiced their support for the curriculum and defended deep breathing as a simple, standard technique used widely in sports training and education.

But the breathing issue "became such a lightning rod to opposition" and "polarized some communities so that they couldn't even have a rational discussion about what the program was," said Don Sweeney, a spokesman for the program. Thus, he said, educators decided to look at alternatives.

Concerns over breathing exercises have been raised recently in California, and similar criticisms have been made in South Carolina, Indiana, and Washington State over critical-thinking programs alleged to have "New Age" overtones. ('See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991 .)

Who Controls Curriculum?

The Michigan dissension came to the forefront in November 2989, when 19 parents filed a lawsuit against the White Pigeon and Calhoun school districts. The complaint alleges that the Michigan model violates students' right to privacy under both the federal and state constitutions. It was also enacted in violation of the state's open-meetings law, the complaint charges.

In addition, the suit alleges the mental-health component of the health curriculum amounts to the "unauthorized practice of psychology and psychiatry by the teachers," said David Melton, a lawyer with the conservative Rutherford Institute of Michigan, which is representing the parents.

The goal of the curriculum is to change children's values, attitudes, and behaviors through a process of open decisionmaking, Mr. Melton said, and his clients "just want these social engineers to step playing God with their kids."

Also being contested is the use of federal funds for the substance-abuse portion of the curriculum, which the plaintiffs say is not carried out by licensed professionals and teaches the "responsible use" of drugs and alcohol rather than abstinence. The U.S. Education Department has approved the state's use of the funds, Mr. Sweeney said. The parents' suit is still pending. Opposition groups, including the Michigan Family Forum and the DADS Foundation, also charge that the state has been especially slick with its marketing approach and has actively worked at discouraging parent participation.

Robert Lemieux of the nonprofit DADS Foundation, said his group originally had sought only to give parents the opportunity to choose the program knowing its contents. Since then, however, the group has asked that the program be scrapped altogether.

The state legislature entered the debate over the summer, holding six well-attended hearings across the state "to determine the ethicality of the Michigan model and sort through parental complaints," according to a staff assistant for State Senator Gil DiNello, who chaired the hearings. After another hearing of expert testimony, a committee of the legislature will decide if any recommendations need to be made to the state education department.

Although the debate has typically been framed in terms of educators versus conservative religious groups, most people involved say the concerns are not based in religion. Mr. Sweeney noted that conservative religious schools have used the curriculum and been happy with it.

Ultimately, both educators and members of opposition groups acknowledge, the debate centers on questions of who controls what is taught in the public schools.

Terry Wilkins, a mother of seven in White Pigeon who opposes the curriculum, said: "I'm not out here because Christianity is being attacked. I'm out here because families are being attacked. The bottom line is who controls young minds."

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Page 11

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