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Conservatives Assail Elementary Counseling in Va.

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Education groups in Virginia are demanding that the state board of education resolve an emotional debate over the proper role of guidance counselors in elementary schools.

Conservative parents and advocacy groups charge that counselors are infringing on parents' rights, stressing self-esteem over academics, and using questionable methods including hypnosis, meditation, and psychotherapeutic techniques.

Defenders of elementary counseling programs counter that conservative Christian groups are trying to destroy a valuable program by manipulating parents' fears with unfounded claims.

Although the furor over elementary school counseling has been most heated in Virginia, similar complaints have surfaced in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas, according to Margaret Jennings, the president of the 14,500-member American School Counselor Association.

The U.S. Supreme Court this month refused to hear an appeal from two Michigan parents who alleged that a school counselor treated their son against their wishes. Lower courts have ruled for the counselor.

"This is really going on everywhere," Ms. Jennings said. "It's an organized attack."

The concerns are focused on elementary and middle school counselors--relative newcomers in many school districts. High school guidance counseling, long a feature of American education and more focused on course-taking and preparation for college or work, has not received the same scrutiny.

Elementary and middle school counselors help students learn to resolve conflicts, become responsible for their own behavior, and succeed in school with study skills. Child-development experts hail such programs, arguing that they can help prevent future problems.

Changing Society

Ms. Jennings believes the concern over the relatively new elementary positions is based on parents' fears of a changing society. Both conservative parents and school counselors want what is best for children, she said, but disagree over how to prepare them for today's world.

"Unless kids are taught to problem-solve, and unless they know how to identify and deal with their anger and any other feelings they might have," she said, "then they can't progress in positive ways."

Arguments in favor of such intervention with young children, however, do not sway critics of counseling programs.

"In our view, elementary guidance counseling has not proved itself in Virginia," said George Tryfiates, the executive director of the Family Foundation, a conservative Springfield, Va.-based think tank. "We're getting calls from all over the state from parents who are saying that children have been abused or misused in some fashion."

The counseling positions in elementary and middle schools have been controversial since Virginia began providing funds for them in 1988. In each of the past four years, members of the state legislature have unsuccessfully sought legislation that would eliminate the positions or restrict guidance programs.

Regulations Tabled

For the past year, the state school board and William C. Bosher, the state superintendent, have been working to resolve the issue.

But in September--after much debate and public hearings around the state--the board voted to table a set of proposed regulations that would have allowed parents to exempt a child from guidance programs.

Frustrated that the lengthy process had not yet resolved the issue, the associations representing the state's teachers, school boards, and counselors last month urged the state board to take action.

Robley S. Jones, the president of the Virginia Education Association, said he fears the board's inaction will open the door for the legislature to pass a more restrictive measure next year.

The delay in adopting the regulations, Mr. Jones said, also means that Gov. George Allen, a Republican, may have time to make two more appointments to the state board, which would give his conservative-minded appointees control.

"With all this talk of guidance counselors hypnotizing kids, I haven't been able to find any parent, anywhere, who says, `Yes, it did happen,"' Mr. Jones added. "If it did, that guidance counselor should be disciplined. Why tie the hands of every guidance counselor in the state?"

`Exceeding Bounds'

Mr. Bosher, the state superintendent, has proposed alternative regulations that would make elementary and middle school guidance programs optional and require parents' written consent for a child to receive counseling services.

The superintendent's proposal also tries to define the objectionable techniques that some parents insist are being practiced on their children, including hypnosis, meditation, psychotherapeutic techniques, and yoga.

"Simply to discount it as common practice doesn't reassure anyone that it won't happen," Mr. Bosher said.

"I do believe that there are clearly instances where we have exceeded our bounds," he added. "I also believe the professional community will universally say that's unacceptable."

The superintendent's proposed regulations would require pa-rental consent for counseling on issues defined as personal, emotional, and sensitive. Academic or career-oriented counseling programs would not be affected, he said.

Another set of regulations, introduced by Alan Wurtzel, a member of the state board, would allow local school boards to draw up their own policies on elementary guidance programs.

All of the proposed sets of regulations, however, would require school districts to provide parents with extensive written information describing their counseling programs.

Some districts see in those requirements yet another state mandate that will bring burdensome paperwork.

Dorothy J. Blum, the president of the Virginia Counselors Association, said that 77 percent of the people who responded to the state board's proposed rules found them either just right or even too restrictive.

"Most parents really do appreciate" elementary counselors, she said. "They think it would be a real problem for them and for their children and the school if there weren't counselors."

But Terrie E. Harper, a Newport News mother whose children testified at public hearings last summer on guidance programs, disagreed.

Her son, she said, was instructed against her wishes to attend a counseling program as part of disciplinary action taken against him for calling his school's principal a communist over the computer system.

And her daughter was placed in group counseling in 5th grade, Ms. Harper said, also without her consent.

Counselors are trying to ensure that students have "the correct government attitudes and values," she charged.

"Saying no as the parent is my right 365 days of the year," she said. "For them to say otherwise made me very angry."

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