From the shores of Redondo Beach to the wheat fields of Walla Walla, Wash., a set of schoolbooks called “Impressions” has sparked an outcry from parents who believe the texts are satanic, immoral and contain violence inappropriate for children.
The dispute--which has raged for three years throughout the West--has spawned lawsuits, divided neighbors and subjected educators to almost unprecedented scrutiny and pressure.
But nowhere, national groups tracking the issue say, has the protest’s ferocity matched the war engulfing Yucaipa, a small community of orange groves and ranch-style homes east of San Bernardino.
In January, when Yucaipa’s school board voted to retain the Impressions books but provide an alternative class for children of parents who objected to their content, many residents believed that the hostilities would subside.
On the contrary. Infuriated by the board’s action, foes of Impressions regrouped and grew noisier--even launching their own newspaper, The Sentry.
Now the opponents have scored an unprecedented victory, becoming the first anti-Impressions group to force a recall election of board members who voted for the controversial texts.
“Yucaipa is without a doubt the most extreme example of a community being torn apart by this,” said Michael Hudson of People for the American Way, a nonprofit group that monitors First Amendment issues and has followed the Impressions saga.
“In most other districts, there were threats, but then the energy and antagonism died down. In Yucaipa, it refuses to go away.”
The recall vote, scheduled for November, is only the latest evidence that Yucaipa--a peaceful-looking town sprinkled with horse paddocks and turkey farms--has been convulsed by the book dispute. Consider:
* Angry parents picketed various schools in the weeks after the board’s decision, and some families have pulled their children out of the district in protest.
* Teachers, administrators and school board members have received hate mail and threatening telephone calls. The district’s curriculum coordinator, Paul Jessup, has even been grabbed by his tie and swung around by an irate parent.
* In some classrooms, students under orders from parents refused to open their Impressions books. On the playground, taunts flew back and forth, with some pro-Impressions parents reporting that their children had been called “anti-Christian” and book opponents saying their children had been treated as outcasts.
* A handful of parents upset about the books caused disturbances in classrooms. Two threatened and harassed school personnel to the point where the district obtained temporary restraining orders against them from San Bernardino County Superior Court.
For administrators and school board members, the stubborn controversy has been both upsetting and puzzling, particularly given Yucaipa’s history as a community with a stable school board and strong parental support in and out of the classroom.
The first complaints about the texts, district officials say, came late last fall, after teachers--80% of whom voted to make Impressions the district’s primary reading material for grades kindergarten through 6--had been using the books in class for two months.
The criticism echoed comments voiced in Redondo Beach, San Juan Capistrano, Hacienda-La Puente and the 13 other California school districts gripped by disputes over Impressions during the last year.
Parents charged that the texts--an anthology of literary selections designed to spark students’ interest in reading--contained negative and immoral themes, violence, witchcraft and other elements unsuitable for children.
The books includes excerpts from such stories as “The Black Stallion” by Walter Farley; “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” from C. S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”; poetry, song lyrics, folklore and fantasy stories.
Some parents said their children were suffering from nightmares inspired by pictures and stories in the books, while others claimed that the selections prompted children to disrespect their elders.
Still others disliked the books because they represent a departure from the traditional “See Jane run-style” readers. Steve Allen, a Yucaipa parent of two who is spearheading the recall, argues that the Impressions books will result in “the educational malnutrition” of the community’s children.
Jessup, Yucaipa’s curriculum coordinator, said administrators responded sincerely to concerns about the books. For example, he said several parents insisted that the face of the devil was visible in a picture of a flower field accompanying a set of song lyrics in the Impressions text for second-graders.
“They asked me to take the picture, Xerox it, turn it upside down, and then hold it up to a mirror, and I honestly did that,” Jessup said. “But I did not see the satanic image they said was there.”
The school board, meanwhile, convened a panel of parents, administrators and teachers to review the texts. After a two-month study, the team recommended keeping the books but providing another reading class for children whose parents opposed their use. After a marathon meeting before a crowd of more than 1,000, trustees voted to do just that.
“We listened to parents,” said board member Steve Miller, a graduate of Yucaipa’s schools. “We investigated their complaints. There are something like 900 stories in those books, and I read every one of them. Then we took our vote and set up a quality program for those parents upset by the material. The fact is, we didn’t choose sides.”
But far from ending a bitter chapter in Yucaipa history, the board’s action only made things worse. Parents on the losing end of the issue felt betrayed and, more important, the alternative provided by the district was inconvenient for many of them.
Because of a classroom crunch, parents who did not want their children exposed to Impressions were initially required to take them to a different campus for reading instruction. Allen said that arrangement--which has since been replaced by alternative classes at each school--"stigmatized children and imposed hardships on the parents, thereby leaving the parents a choice of give in, give up or get out.”
Opponents of the books did not give up. Instead, they resolved to seek the ouster of the school board, which their literature describes as a “runaway” group that has “manipulated parents and children” and “endorsed experimental policies that . . . threaten to tarnish Yucaipa’s excellent record of achievement in education.”
After an aggressive campaign, opponents obtained enough signatures this month to force a November recall vote against Miller and Jan Mishodek, the board’s president. But two groups have organized to support the board, and the political action arm of the California Teachers Assn. has donated $10,000 to fight the recall.
Moreover, Miller has filed a lawsuit charging that recall proponents used illegal tactics in gathering signatures. The complaint alleges that recall backers broke the law by collecting signatures within 100 feet of polling places on Election Day in June and includes sworn declarations from many signers who say they were told that the petition was to remove books, not oust board members.
If a San Bernardino Superior Court judge invalidates the signatures Miller alleges were obtained improperly, recall proponents could be left with too few names to keep the issue on the ballot.
Beth Watson, who has two sons in public schools, is among many Yucaipa parents who back the school board and question the motives of recall supporters. Watson, who said she last week received a call from a person who labeled her a satanist and told her to “drop dead,” said she believes that anti-Impressions forces are pushing a wider agenda set by national fundamentalist Christian groups--a charge the book foes deny.
“They have an option now, a choice, so why are they still complaining?” asked Watson, who will be a candidate for the school board if the recall succeeds. “They seem to think they have the right to decide what’s best for all the children in Yucaipa. Well, they don’t.”
Despite the acrimony, District Supt. Ronald Bennett reports that students are checking out more books from school libraries than ever before--a fact officials and teachers attribute to Impressions. Moreover, 80% of pupils at the two elementary schools in session this summer have chosen to use the texts.
Still, no matter the outcome of the recall, both sides agree Yucaipa will never be the same. One camp regrets that fact:
“It’s sad,” board member Miller said. “Our community, our schools, used to enjoy a terrific reputation. Now I think people look askance at Yucaipa. And I know this has left some real deep divisions in the town.”
Allen, a candidate to replace Miller should he be voted out of office, agrees a “division” exists. But he sees a brighter picture:
“The community,” he said, “has awakened to the need for parents to re-establish their rights to determine what their children are taught.”