Schools urged to drop antidrug program
Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Scientology-linked teachings inaccurate, superintendent says
State Superintendent Jack O'Connell urged all California schools on Tuesday to drop the Narconon antidrug education program after a new state evaluation concluded that its curriculum offers inaccurate and unscientific information.
"We'll get a letter out to every school district today, saying this program is filled with inaccuracies and does not reflect widespread medical and factual evidence," O'Connell said of Narconon Drug Prevention & Education, a free program with ties to the Church of Scientology.
O'Connell requested the independent evaluation in July after The Chronicle reported in June that Narconon introduced students to some beliefs and methods of Scientology without their knowledge.
The stories reported that Narconon's instruction rests, in part, on church beliefs that drug residues remain indefinitely in body fat, causing people to experience repeated drug flashbacks and cravings. Some teachers also reported that Narconon instructors taught their students that drug residues can be sweated out in saunas and that colored ooze is produced when drugs exit the body.
Scientology correspondence obtained by The Chronicle said Narconon's instruction is delivered in language purged of most church parlance, but includes "all the Scientology and Dianetics Handbook basics."
Narconon classroom instructors made presentations in at least 39 California school districts since 2000, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
San Francisco and Los Angeles schools banned Narconon after The Chronicle reports appeared. Narconon had had unfettered access to San Francisco classrooms from 1991 until last summer.
"Now we need to get a memo out to schools saying that because of the state superintendent's recommendation, which concurs with the San Francisco finding, schools are not to be using Narconon," said Trish Bascom, director of school health programs for the San Francisco schools.
The report, funded by the state and released today by the Hayward-based California Healthy Kids Resource Center, did not evaluate whether Narconon crossed the church-state line in public schools.
Instead, five medical doctors and nine school health education specialists evaluated Narconon for scientific accuracy and how well its teaching methods might help students avoid taking drugs.
Information provided to students by Narconon "does not reflect accurate, widely accepted medical and scientific evidence," the researchers said. "Some information is misleading because it is overstated or does not distinguish between drug use and abuse."
The report offered these examples of Narconon's inaccuracies:
-- Drugs burn up vitamins and nutrients.
Examples of "misleading statements" include the ideas that the amount of a drug taken determines whether it acts as a stimulant or sedative, and that drugs "ruin creativity and dull senses."
The report also criticized Narconon for using ex-addicts to make its presentations.
"Authorizing ex-addicts to teach drug prevention in schools may tacitly reinforce student perceptions that drug use really isn't risky," the researchers said.
And they found fault with Narconon for making no distinction between what presenters tell young children versus teenagers; lecturing to students without giving them a chance to practice drug-refusal skills; suggesting to students that drug-taking is more widespread than it is; and using scare tactics, such as telling students that too much caffeine can kill.
"Narconon is proud that throughout our nearly 40 years of service we have been able to help millions of youth worldwide to turn away from drug experimentation and a life on drugs," Narconon's president, Clark Carr, said after reading the report.
"We are always open to suggestions how we can achieve even better results. Narconon staff will continue to do everything they can to help youth learn true information about drugs so they can make informed choices."
Carr was reached by phone in Hawaii, where he said he had been invited to introduce Narconon to classrooms there.
Hawaii state school officials had already contacted their California counterparts, O'Connell said, to ask about the report's findings.
The one positive nod researchers gave Narconon was that it could be entertaining. The report quotes from a Narconon script advising presenters to tell kids that "People don't decide to become addicted to a drug. Nobody goes home at the end of a a school day and says, 'What am I going to do tonight? Wash my bicycle ... and become a drug addict.' "
That kind of engaging approach is what got biology teacher Gary Sninsky of Gardenia High in the Los Angeles Unified School District to invite Narconon presenters to his class year after year. He was among many teachers who said they were disappointed when their district banned the antidrug program.
"I was impressed by their ability to hold a passel of teenagers' attention," Sninsky said Tuesday, adding that he just assumed what Narconon presenters said was accurate.
Deborah Wood, executive director of the California Healthy Kids Resource Center, said inaccurate programs should not be permitted in classrooms even if they are free to cash-strapped schools and entertaining to glazed-eyed students.
"Ask instead if that would be appropriate for a math or science class," Wood suggested. "The standards need to be the same when we're talking about valuable instructional time."
In his letter advising district superintendents not to allow Narconon in their classrooms, O'Connell wrote: "Fortunately, many programs are available to schools that have evidence of efficacy in preventing violence or drug use."
The new state report will be available on the Web at www.cde.ca.gov/ls/he/at/research.asp
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