State schools chief says he could bar Narconon teachings
California’s top educator said Wednesday that he has ordered the state Department of Education to investigate an antidrug program used by schools around the state whose teachings have been linked with the Church of Scientology.
State schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell said the investigation could lead to an order barring schools from using the program, called Narconon Drug Prevention and Education.
The popular program, based in Hollywood, has provided antidrug instruction in schools around the country for more than two decades. Narconon has made presentations in at least 20 school districts in California, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Leading addiction experts, however, have labeled some of the medical theories advanced by Narconon as “irresponsible” and “pseudoscience.”
“We have an obligation to inform school districts of potentially inaccurate and misleading information being distributed,” O’Connell said. “We’ll start following this. We can send a memo to all school districts with the flip of a switch.”
O’Connell said he learned about Narconon a week ago, when The Chronicle published articles describing parallels between Narconon’s instruction and Scientology’s religious concepts and language. The parallels included theories about drug addiction that five medical experts interviewed by The Chronicle said had no basis in fact.
Among the theories:
— Drugs — including ecstasy, LSD and marijuana — accumulate in body fat, causing drug cravings and flashbacks for years.
— Drugs in fat scramble the “mental image pictures” that make up the mind.
— The vitamin niacin pulls drugs from fat, and saunas sweat them from the body.
— Colored ooze is produced when drugs exit the body.
The doctors interviewed by The Chronicle who denounced the theories were Peter Banys, director of substance abuse programs at the San Francisco VA Medical Center; Neal Benowitz, head of clinical pharmacology at UCSF; Timmen Cermak, medical director of Ohlhoff Recovery Programs in San Francisco and Marin County; David Smith of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic; and Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego.
Narconon officials strongly defend the scientific accuracy of the claims. They acknowledge that Narconon’s administrators and lecturers are Scientologists and that Scientologists financially support Narconon. But they are adamant that the program is legally and financially separate from the Church of Scientology.
Last week, San Francisco schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman gave Narconon until June 24 to revise parts of its curriculum or be barred from the district. O’Connell said Wednesday that Ackerman had acted properly.
On Wednesday, Narconon President Clark Carr said he and his staff would address Ackerman’s concerns in writing or in person before the deadline.
“Narconon is very confident that any questions the San Francisco Unified School District or the state Department of Education have will be clarified in our forthcoming presentation to them,” Carr said. “We have not received any questions from the state Department of Education. But we understand that the San Francisco schools and the state have concerns to ensure that the children get the best drug education — and that’s our concern, too.
“We’re working on it now and will fully handle all the questions — not just the narrow questions but the whole issue of the validity of the drug education.”
According to Narconon’s promotional material, 5,434 students received Narconon drug education in San Francisco schools during 2003.
Narconon has been delivering lectures in the city’s schools since 1991, but Ackerman, who arrived in the district in 2000, said she was unfamiliar with the program until a reporter began asking questions about it last winter. She said that was because Narconon contacts individual schools, not districts, to offer its services.
Narconon uses charismatic lecturers to deliver its school presentations, and many teachers and students have praised the program. Instruction usually is financed by small businesses run by Scientologists.
In exchange for the free program, Narconon asks students and teachers to write letters of thanks to the businesses and uses the letters in its promotional materials.
Although Narconon has been active in San Francisco, most of its California business is done in the southern part of the state. Los Angeles Unified is the largest district in the state to host the program.
Through a spokeswoman, Los Angeles schools Superintendent Roy Romer declined to comment about Narconon. But the spokeswoman, Stephanie Brady, said the program was under review by the district’s health department.
John Perez, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, expressed concern about Narconon.
“We’re not interested in thinly disguised religion being put upon the students,” he said. “The schools are a secular institution, and there has to be a wall of separation between religion and public schools.”