A growing controversy involving the San Francisco public schools and an anti-drug organization with alleged ties to the Church of Scientology has prompted a state investigation of the program the organization offers in schools.
The concerns arising in San Francisco about the program “did raise a lot of questions that [state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell] has asked the department to look into,” Hillary McLean, a California Department of Education spokeswoman, said late last week.
In a June 9 letter, the San Francisco school district gave Narconon Drug Prevention and Education until June 24 to revise parts of its curriculum and provide detailed content outlines for the various drug-prevention presentations it offers city schools.
If the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization fails to comply with those demands, it will be removed from a list of community organizations screened and approved by the 57,000-student San Francisco district for its schools.
The district’s ultimatum was issued to Narconon the same day the San Francisco Chronicle ran stories detailing what the newspaper said were the anti-drug group’s connections to Scientology and parts of the group’s drug-abuse- prevention curriculum for children that allegedly preach church concepts.
It was the Chronicle reporter’s investigation this past winter that prompted San Francisco Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to order the district’s health administrators to “comb through the Narconon curriculum,” said district spokeswoman Lorna M. Ho.
Narconon’s president, Clark Carr, said his organization and the Church of Scientology are separate entities, financially and organizationally. As in past cases in which school activities have been scrutinized for links to Scientology, Narconon officials also insist that their programs are secular. (“Hubbard’s Education Theories Focus on ‘Barriers to Learning,’” Sept. 17, 1997.)
In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Carr dismissed the problems in San Francisco as a “false controversy” created by the news media, and said the district’s concerns were based on incomplete information about the program.
“What we see is that some pressure has been put upon [district officials],” Mr. Carr said. “We’re quite confident that we’ll be able to straighten this out and get ... into the serious issue—and that’s drug prevention for kids.”
As for the impending state investigation, Mr. Carr said, “It is clear that the San Francisco Chronicle reporter, through half-truths, exaggeration, and innuendo, is trying to manufacture a controversy in the state of California. We are going to take this issue head on and redouble our efforts to educate children on the truths about drugs.”
Narconon Inc. was founded by an adherent of L. Ron Hubbard, the late science-fiction writer who created Scientology, which has long been controversial for its efforts to gain acceptance as a religion and its sensitivity to media scrutiny.
Scientology emphasizes the use of scientific methodology to answer spiritual questions. Its advocates suggest that the religion was made possible by advances in the physical sciences.
Mr. Carr said Narconon lectures have probably reached almost 2 million children nationwide in the past decade and more than 30,000 San Francisco public school students in the past 13 years. The organization also operates more than 100 drug-rehabilitation and -education centers around the world.
What San Francisco district officials found in their recent review of the Narconon materials prompted a Feb. 20 letter to Narconon’s director, Tony Bylsma, detailing areas of concern and requesting more information about what, exactly, the organization’s representatives tell students when they visit classrooms.
In their letter, district officials took issue with the explanation from Narconon’s curriculum materials that “drugs or their byproducts get stored in fat within the body and can stay there for years. This is a problem later, when the person is working or exercising or has stress, the fat burns up and a tiny amount of the drug seeps back into the blood.”
The statement does bear a striking resemblance to a key Scientology concept explained on the church’s official Web site that holds that the effects of drugs last long after a person has stopped taking them because toxins lodge in body fat, where they can continue to damage the mind and body for years.
Still, the district stops short of accusing Narconon of proselytizing in public schools, and it has instead labeled the information “misleading” on scientific grounds.
Also misleading, the San Francisco officials contended, are statements such as “like any other drug [alcohol] is poisonous to your body” and “alcohol is made of dead rotted food.”
In those and other instances, the district told Narconon to either revise or remove the material from its presentations.
Health and Safety
Narconon’s president said the statements at issue have been taken out of context and are part of a broad curriculum backed by sound science.
“Other material covered in the lectures include definitions of drugs and other data taken from [Drug Enforcement Administration] research, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, as well as from Mr. Hubbard’s secular research and discoveries about how drugs affect the body, the mind, and the individual,” Mr. Carr said.
Regardless, if Narconon chooses not to comply with the district’s demands, it has no clear avenue for recourse, said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
“The district has broad discretion to make a wide range of decisions about the health and safety of its students and the accuracy of materials taught in its schools,” Mr. Lynn said. “And on religious grounds, it’s tricky for [Narconon] because they claim the material isn’t religious.”
“Whatever the school district does,” he said, “they don’t face any significant challenge.”
In a lengthy May 24 response letter to the district, Narconon’s Mr. Bylsma acknowledged that the language used in the curriculum is simple, but said that the program has proved both effective and popular.
“Do you seriously think we will do better if we just parrot what others are saying, and do not offer a fresh point of view?” he wrote. “I would expect you to be glad to have our efforts joined with yours in the vitally important campaign to reduce youthful drug experimentation and alcohol use.”
The district’s Ms. Ho said that although Narconon’s response offered justifications for its teachings, its tone suggested it wouldn’t change the curriculum.
The district doesn’t plan to budge, either.
“Safety and security is our first priority for our kids and always has been,” Ms. Ho said. “When an issue is brought to our attention, we do everything we can to take immediate action. That’s what the superintendent did in this case.”