Critics of County Schools Part Ways on Possible Solutions

Times Staff Writer

There is a lot going on in public schools in the south county that Russell Neal and Judy Williams don't like, but the similarity between them ends right about there.

Neal is a fundamentalist Christian, a believer in the seven-day creation, and a man of clear, though hardly modest, objectives. If he had his way, he says, he would prefer to see his own views regarding prayer, sex education, creationism and fixed, traditional values implemented in the public schools.

Williams is a non-church-going Christian who says that "organized religion doesn't turn me on a whole lot," and she bristles when lumped together with fundamentalists who are taking their local schools to task.

Neal and Williams both object, however, to an assortment of programs being offered in public schools these days. The programs go under a variety of otherwise ambiguous names, like "values clarification" or "gender identification," but in the eyes of critics they are code words--Trojan horses for secular humanism, situational ethics or moral relativism, concepts that they believe are undermining the foundation of American society.

Yet while there is agreement among the critics about what they don't like in Orange County public schools, there is far less of a consensus as to what they would install instead.

"What I would like to see boils down to my values," said Neal, one of the leaders of Citizens for Family Strength and, before that, one of those involved in support of "equal access" for student religious organizations at Mission Viejo and El Toro high schools. Neal volunteered that what he wanted in the public schools regarding prayer, sex education, creationism and fixed, traditional values simply "may not be do-able."

Many of the programs they oppose, the critics acknowledge, have been put forward by people who have goals similar to their own: encouraging academic excellence; eliminating drug and alcohol abuse; heading off early sexual activity, teen-age pregnancy and the spread of venereal diseases; preventing alienation; and reducing vandalism and other anti-social behavior. There appears to be little disagreement that the primary responsibility for moral education is that of parents, and for religious grounding, the family congregation.

"I don't question their motives," said Neal of his opponents, as much as he objected to the premises under which they approach these issues. "Some of them are even Republicans," he said.

Neal said that a private, Christian school would probably be the best option for his children, if his tax dollars could be transferred through a voucher system or tuition tax credits. "I can't take my money with me when I walk away," said the Annapolis graduate who now works as a supervising engineer at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. "If I could take my money with me it might be a different story."

Williams was active in a group of parents which later became the Capistrano Parents Committee for Academic Freedom, opposing

Project Self Esteem in elementary schools. "Project Self Esteem," a program led by volunteers in use in some Orange County schools, is designed, its supporters say, to build self-confidence in children. It involves, for example, a series of 40-minute sessions for children. The subjects, depending on their age groups, include dealing with anger, experiencing and sharing feelings, stealing, teasing, handling peer pressures and making choices.

The Capistrano Parents Committee for Academic Freedom filed a lawsuit against the Capistrano Unified School District, claiming the program is a form of group therapy that violates religion and privacy rights. People connected with the program deny it involves group therapy or any form of psychological treatment.

While opposing Project Self Esteem, Williams and some of her supporters do not like being identified with fundamentalists who have pressed for equal access to the schools for Christian groups.

"The school board would like to say that this is the same old group of crazy fanatic Christians," said Williams, who works as volunteer director of a food distribution center. "I am not any part of those people. . . . I don't think prayer belongs in school."

When Project Self-Esteem came along, however, Williams and other Capistrano-district parents found common ground with fundamentalists in their objection to portions of the program dealing with sex education.

There was, Williams said, some cross-pollination among different groups at school board meetings. She said, for example, that she became more sensitized to concerns some fundamentalists had about the teaching of sex education.

"I'm not a prude," she said. Her objections to the sex education material were that it was scientifically inaccurate or incomplete, that it started at too early an age and that it made sexual activity seem normative. Williams said she kept her son, an eighth-grader, at home the day of one sex-education presentation and talked with him herself. "I'm not sending him to school to be stimulated," she said.

Though there appears to be little or no organized coordination among these various parents' organizations, sooner or later many of them get around to consulting with Robert L. Simonds, founder and president of the Costa Mesa-based National Assn. of Christian Educators.

Groups Spring Up

Parent and citizens groups like those in Orange County are springing up around the country so fast that trying to keep track of them is "maddening," said the retired Orange Coast College professor, who also heads a group called Citizens for Excellence in Education. "The parents' thing is a revolution," Simonds said, "it's exploding."

Simonds' two-year-old association of teachers in public education publishes a quarterly magazine, "Christians in Education" and sends several regular newsletters to 15,000 subscribers, Simonds said. Its purpose is "to organize Christian teachers into fellowship groups and to understand public school issues as they affect the Christian faith," he said.

"We don't want to make all public schools Christian schools," he said. "What we want to be is the voice of reason," he said.

Among religious parents and proponents of traditional values, he said, "the trend is still toward Christian schools. We're on the verge of a mass exodus from public schools."

Yet Simonds, like many of the critics of specific public school programs, is committed to public education for reasons that are both idealistic and practical.

"We could join the Christian movement if we thought that was the answer," he said, but "those schools often do not meet the needs of a multiracial, multi-ethnic culture."

"People say, 'Why don't you put your children in Christian schools?' " he said. "Because we can't afford it. . . . That's why we have public schools."

Other Factors

For some parents, money is not the only consideration. "The feeling of our church is that we're to use the public schools," said Anita Burkett, a Mormon and founder of Citizens for Family Strength.

Simonds believes in having a morning prayer, coupled with a non-religious program of traditional values like that prepared by a group called the American Institute for Character Development in San Antonio, Tex. The 15-point curriculum, Simonds said, based on the Judeo-Christian ethic "lifted academic scores, reduced vandalism" and improved the well-being of students.

"You can't declare schools neutral in religion and morality and produce good character," Simonds said.

If objectionable programs now in the schools were removed, and prayer and a traditional values curriculum instituted, Simonds said, "then we would be very happy and satisfied."

Neal, like Simonds, would like to see each day begin with a prayer that would be "a ceremonial affirmation of the supremacy of God," an exercise so minimal as to have "very, very little value to any religious person and very little offense to any non-religious person. It should be offensive only to atheists and secular humanists."

Burkett said that her preference would be for some sort of silent period, "whereby people are encouraged to pray on their own," in order to "avoid controversy" among denominations.

Darryl Regan, president of the Capistrano Parents Committee, said that although "this nation was founded as a Christian nation," school students "should not be forced to say the Lord's Prayer or take Bible study or have the Judeo-Christian ethic pushed down anyone's throat." He would like to see Christian Bible study courses to be offered as elective courses, which Neal also supported.

Not Taboo

Regan said he thought that some basic information regarding contraception and venereal disease ought to be presented briefly in biology classes at the secondary level. "It should not be ignored or treated as a taboo subject," he said.

Neal agreed, but said he would also like to see "emphasis on chastity and heterosexual, monogamous marriage," with the assumption in the classroom being "that you're going to be chaste." Sexual activity, he said, should be shown to be "wrong" and "destructive" because "it will make you unhappy as a person and should never be done outside of marriage."

Simonds said that schools should provide counseling to students who have become involved sexually in order to help them abstain in the future and lessen the psychological damage. Those who regretted their actions, he said, should not be burdened by additional feelings of guilt.

"What's done is done," an individual should be told, Simonds said. "You should be willing to forgive yourself as God forgives."

But the primary message should be that "abstinence is a much smaller price to pay than the consequences of promiscuity," he said.

As for evolution, Simonds said that "our approach to teaching evolution is to teach the two scientific models: evolution and scientific creationism." The latter, he said, encompasses the possibility that the earth may be millions of years old, as opposed to literal creationism, which puts the age of the earth at just under 6,000 years.

Neal, a believer in the seven-day creation, feels that "the debate has been framed improperly." He would be satisfied, he says, if the two concepts were presented side-by-side in science classes. "That's the best you can do right now."

Burkett said she has no objection to the teaching of evolution "as long as the teacher brings in another point of view." Williams, similarly, said she had no objection to evolution "as long as it's taught as a theory," and not presented as fact.

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