Some Parents Irked When Anti-Suicide Rally Goes Religious

Times Staff Writer

In the flyers--distributed during mandatory assemblies at several local high schools--the event was billed as a free pizza blast featuring a talk on teen-age suicide.

In reality, according to one parent who attended, it was a church-sponsored evangelical Christian revival meeting that students were duped into attending.

"I was totally deceived," said parent Jan Koepke.

As a result, a parents' group is calling for an investigation into the matter. And some Long Beach Unified School District officials have expressed dismay and embarrassment that it happened.

"This was misrepresentation," said Diane Fike, president of Friends of Public Education, a group of about 60 parents and teachers; the organization was formed last fall to oppose undue influence in the district by Christian fundamentalists. "It is inappropriate to distribute on campus any religious material or something promoting religion."

Ed Eveland, the district's assistant superintendent in charge of secondary schools, agreed, and said: "I guess you could say we got sucked in."

Organizers of the event said they did not mean to deceive anyone.

The matter came to light last week when Koepke, 37, complained to the school board that anti-suicide assemblies attended last month by nearly 6,000 students at Poly, Millikan and Jordan high schools were actually carefully disguised lures for a high-powered Christian rally at Long Beach City College on May 15.

"It was supposed to be about suicide, but I would have committed suicide to get out of there," said Koepke, who attended the rally at city college with her 15-year-old daughter, Suzanne.

Touring Anti-Drug Crusader

The main attraction at both the assemblies and the college rally was Jerry Johnston, a former drug addict-turned-Christian who tours the country speaking to high school students about drug abuse and suicide.

Based in Kansas City, Kan., Johnston, 28, visits more than 20 cities a year to spread his message to young people, according to his assistant, David Parmer. And although he sometimes promotes Christianity during large public gatherings like the one at city college, Parmer said, he stays away from religious subjects while on public high school campuses.

That seemed to be the pattern in Long Beach, where Johnston's weeklong series of appearances was organized and sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Lakewood. Virtually everyone contacted by The Times who attended one of the high school assemblies gave it high marks.

"It was well done and totally secular," said Neil Van Steenbergen, a Jordan teacher and a founding member of Friends of Public Education.

"He didn't offer solutions, but raised the problem very effectively and the kids listened to him. It was dramatic."

The controversy, Van Steenbergen said, arose as a result of flyers announcing the city college rally, which the students were invited to pick up on their way out of the auditorium.

Offers of Free Pizza

The leaflets, headlined "Suicide?," contained two tickets redeemable for an unlimited amount of free Coke and pizza. Referring to Johnston, it said that hearing his story could "change your life."

Two referral numbers were listed on the back of each flyer--one for a drug and alcohol program at Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach, the other for a suicide hot line in Orange County. But nowhere did the leaflet indicate that the May 15 rally was church-sponsored, nor that it would be religious in nature.

People attending the rally said it featured an emotional testimonial by Johnston about the power of Jesus to change one's life.

"We wouldn't (have been) allowed to put on there that it was religious and distribute it in public school" because of the doctrine of church-state separation, explained James Borror, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Lakewood. The church paid about $3,000 for the city college rally and persuaded businesses to donate the $250-per-assembly cost of the high school campus gatherings.

"We wanted kids to hear his message."

Johnston is now out of the country for two weeks and could not be reached for comment. But Parmer reiterated the pastor's explanation as to why no mention of religion had been made on the flyers. "We don't mention it in (public school) assemblies or put it on flyers . . . because (that would be) illegal," he said. "We told (school officials) there would be no religious overtones and (putting religion on the flyers) would have gone against our word."

Partially Religious

Both men characterized the city college rally--attended by a mostly teen-age audience of about 4,500--as only partially religious in tone.

According to Eveland, however, it is against district policy to allow religious events of any kind to be promoted on high school campuses. But implementation of the policy, he said, rests with individual principals who have the ultimate veto power over what is presented or distributed on their campuses. "Principals should research any request for an assembly rather than just accept someone's recommendation," he said. "They are supposed to use very careful judgment."

All three principals involved said they had reviewed video and audio recordings of previous Johnston presentations before approving his appearance on their campuses. And two of the three said they had also approved distribution of the innocuous-looking flyers because they appeared to have no religious content. The exception was Jordan Principal Robert Ellis, who said he was not aware that the flyers would be distributed until afterward.

"It was a dynamite assembly," Ellis said, "but if I were doing it again, I would ask them not to distribute that particular material."

Distribution Called a Mistake

Millikan Principal Wendol Murray agreed that in light of subsequent developments, it was a mistake to approve distribution of the flyers.

But Poly Principal Wayne Piercy said he would still approve material promoting an off-campus event that presented Christianity as one--but not the only--solution to drug abuse and suicide. "We promote many things outside the school day," he said. "I agree that . . . one of the answers to the problem is Jesus. I don't agree that it is the only answer."

Fike--of Friends of Public Education--said her organization plans to send a letter of protest to the district next week asking for an investigation into the matter, and demanding assurances that it won't happen again.

Eveland, in fact, said he had already addressed the issue at a recent breakfast meeting of the district's five high school principals. "It was kind of a cheap shot," he said regarding distribution of the controversial flyers, "but the schools should have been more vigilant. It's alerted us once again that you just can't be too careful about having anything passed out at a school."

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