Parents File Suit Over School Program : Say Capistrano District's Project Self Esteem Is Group Therapy

Times Staff Writer

A group of parents filed a lawsuit against the Capistrano Unified School District Monday, claiming that a program for elementary students is a form of group therapy that violates religion and privacy rights and was hidden from some parents.

The suit by the newly formed Capistrano Parents Committee for Academic Freedom accused the school district of violating parental privacy rights in rearing and educating children and, particularly, in teaching concepts contrary to the group's fundamental religious tenets.

The group claims that Project Self Esteem, a program unique to Orange County schools, "is, in fact, psychological treatment and counseling" conducted by volunteer parents who have no credentials or training in psychology or counseling.

The group's lawyer, David E. Hosmer of Irvine, said a manual for teachers requires "volunteer parents to read a section word for word from the book to hypnotize students," after which the students discuss "their personal beliefs and practices in family life, morality and religion."

A hearing date is expected to be set today on the group's request for an injunction to bar the program, now in use at nine of the 16 elementary schools in the district, Hosmer said.

A school district spokeswoman and others connected with the project said psychologists have evaluated the program, formulated by two Newport Beach women about eight years ago, and concluded that it does not involve hypnosis, group therapy or any form of psychological treatment.

"It's a very innocent program, and many, many parents have enjoyed it," said Eileen Fallman, coordinator of the project at Castille Elementary School in Mission Viejo. Most of the parents who have objected to the program have children in Castille. "These few people who object are reading an awful lot into this."

She said the authors of the teachers manual, Peggy Bielen and Sandy McDaniel, both former teachers, already have changed the text for the coming school year to mollify the critics.

What the Capistrano Parents Committee called hypnosis, for instance, is actually a relaxation exercise that had the students closing their eyes as the volunteer parent counted backwards, Fallman said. Those directions and others have been removed from the handbook, she said, making the exercise simply a tightening and loosening of muscles.

Project Self Esteem is the latest target of the group, which previously did not have a name, said committee president Darryl Regan of Mission Viejo.

"All the people involved are the same ones writing petitions, signing letters and making phone calls over the Family Life Education Program and the equal access issue," Regan said.

Family Life Program

The family life program, an expanded version of which was approved by the Capistrano board as pilot courses in some schools next fall, teaches students about mental and emotional health, family health, diseases and disorders and uses and misuses of substances.

The equal access issue is the object of a pending lawsuit that seeks an order to allow students at Mission Viejo and El Toro high schools in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District to advertise meetings of their lunch hour religious discussion groups on school grounds.

"This is a group of people who want education put back in school and respect for country, parents and family life put back in school," Regan said. "We're tired of seeing non-education agendas or unnecessarily graphic agendas, like sex education."

He pointed, for instance, to a passage in the teaching manual for Project Self Esteem that tells volunteers to explain to students that "a feeling isn't right or wrong, it just is." Such a view is contrary to the group's fundamental Christian tenets, Regan said.

"The trouble with this country is that there are no longer any absolutes," Regan said. "Parents are trying to teach respect, and at school, teachers are saying, 'If it feels good, do it.' "

Context Explained

Fallman said the passage was taken out of context. It was meant to have volunteers convey to students that they should accept people's differences, that while one student may like to read, another may like to play baseball. "The wording gave them (objectors) difficulty, so the passage was taken out," she said.

Castille Principal Joel Drew said the project has been an open book at Castille, where only 16 of about 500 students have been pulled from the program by their parents since it began last fall. He admitted the program should have been publicized better last fall. Fallman said she was at fault for failing to arrange a meeting between parents and the authors before January.

She said another change in the project will require that information about the course be sent to parents before it begins and at the end of each session. The parents also will have an opportunity to pull their children out of the project.

Drew said respect for others and for themselves is the major part of what Project Self Esteem is trying to instill in the students.

In the 12 40-minute sessions over 24 weeks, second- and third-graders cover such subjects as realizing their uniqueness, dealing with compliments, dealing with anger, tattling to get someone in trouble versus reporting information and experiencing and sharing feelings. Fourth- and fifth-graders cover similar areas plus such topics as stealing and teasing.

Program for Older Students

In eight 40-minute sessions over 16 weeks, sixth-graders cover apologies, friendship and peer pressure, social skills such as choice making and "how to say no to a friend when you want to say no," he said.

Project Self Esteem was picked up by the Orange County Board of Education as a way to get students at an early age to think better of themselves, Drew and Fallman said. The county found that a high self-esteem was likely to turn the students away from drugs and alcohol when they got into high school, they said.

While the project has not been approved as course instruction or as course material by the Capistrano board, it is considered resource material offered by the county board that individual schools routinely decide for themselves to use, Drew said.

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