Boy Scouts' School 'Life Skills' Program Draws Fire

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In an attempt to bring its educational philosophy to more at-risk youngsters in inner-city and rural areas, the Boy Scouts of America is launching a national in-school curriculum package that promotes self-esteem and life skills.

But the "Learning for Life" program, set for release this week, has already drawn the ire of some groups because of a requirement that the adults who lead the program, including public-school teachers, conform to the same traditional leadership standards as scoutmasters, who must not be homosexuals or atheists.

Unlike most traditional scouting activities, the curriculum--in development for three years, and designed for use in 45-minute lessons during the instructional day--is open to all students ages 6 to 18 regardless of gender, religious conviction, or sexual orientation.

Teaching critical and creative thinking, goal-setting, moral and ethical decision-making, citizenship, and career objectives, Learning for Life would supplant the independently run "in-school scouting" programs now being offered in some schools across the country. The new program, which is modeled on the old one, potentially could reach 1 million youths, officials said.

However, the fate of both programs is uncertain in San Francisco, where in-school scouting programs exist in some schools. The school beard is considering a resolution that would prohibit any group, including the Boy Scouts, from conducting an educational program in the schools unless it has the same nondiscriminatory policy as the district.

The measure is expected to pass when it comes up for final vote next week.

United Way Controversy

The issue before the San Francisco school beard echoes a controversy this summer over United Way funding for the 81-year-old youth group.

In May, a Los Angeles superior court found that the Mount Diablo (Calif.) Council of the Boy Scouts had the right under the First Amendment to bar homosexuals from being scout leaders.

Gay-rights advocates then asked United Way of the Bay Area to explain how it could support six local scout councils, including Mount Diablo, with $850,000 a year in light of its own policy of nondiscrimination.

When the Mount Diablo Council told United Way in early August of the existence of "Learning for Life," with its open student-membership policy, it helped ease an initial standoff between the two groups, said John Stafford, vice president of community affairs for United Way of the Bay Area.

The issue of United Way funding for the Scouts remains unresolved pending a United Way task force report due in February--a delay that has been "frustrating," said Robert Birle, former co-chairman of the Contra Costa Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Organizations.

On another issue, the Boy Scouts last month, for the first time, "strongly" suggested in a letter to its local councils that the U.S. flag be the only flag displayed at their functions.

That statement came in response tea complaint from a troop member about the display of the Confederate flag at some Boy Scout events in Southern states.

No Change in Policy

Boy Scout officials emphasize that the open-membership standard of Learning for Life does not represent a policy change for the parent group.

Some critics have called the program a "separate but equal" or "apartheid" scouting system for girls, homosexuals, and atheists now barred from the Boy Scouts.

But the program was "not designed to be an adjunct, substitute, or alternative to traditional scouting," said Blake Lewis, a spokesman for the national Boy Scout leadership.

Over the last decade, the Boy Scouts has seen a growth in membership "that certainly doesn't supply impetus"to change traditional standards of scouting, Mr. Lewis said.

Indeed, the leaders of the Learning for Life lessons, who may be classroom teachers or Boy Scout representatives, must be willing to subscribe to the Scouts' traditional declaration of an "obligation to God" and may not be homosexuals, Mr. Lewis said.

Representatives of gay and atheist groups voiced strong disagreement with the policy. "It's assumed generally that any teacher who is employed [in a district] is competent to teach the curriculum they are certified to teach," regardless of sexual orientation, said Dan Stephen, co-chairman of the American Federation of Teachers National Gay and Lesbian Caucus.

Paula Ettelbrick, legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay-rights organization, called the policy "an outrage," and said it was ironic the curriculum focuses on self-esteem.

"[The policy] really reinforces the degraded and... inferior [position] that gay people, particularly young gay people, struggle with in society," she said.

Atheists Opposed

American Atheists also vigorously opposes the Learning for Life leadership policy, and is ready to challenge its use, said the group's founder, Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

"We would feel that would be highly exclusionary," she said.

But Ms. O'Hair said she doubted the program could gain much acceptance. "I don't think there are that many nutty teachers and parents out there," she commented.

Mr. Lewis of the Boy Scouts said it was not known how many of the 397 local scout councils nationwide might embrace the curriculum and seek out partnerships with local schools.

One educator who field-tested a career-awareness component of Learning for Life had only praise for it.

'I do feel it empowers the students to understand their own strengths, weaknesses, [and] likes," said Rose Marie Worley, a student specialist and adjunct faculty member at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College.

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 22

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Boy Scouts' School 'Life Skills' Program Draws Fire
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