L.A. district warns against the use of presentations by a group linked to the Church of Scientology. The state plans an investigation.
Los Angeles school officials are warning campuses not to use a drug prevention program linked to the Church of Scientology while California’s schools chief has ordered an investigation to determine whether the anti-drug presentations are scientifically sound and free from the religion’s influence.
The target of the district and state actions is Narconon, a drug prevention and rehabilitation program that bases its ideas partly on the research and controversial teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Narconon has conducted educational assemblies and classes, usually one session of about an hour each, in some schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities.
In the “Truth About Drugs” lectures, Narconon “presenters” tell students about the negative mental, emotional and physical effects of drugs (including theories on how they are stored and metabolized in body tissue and how drugs deplete vitamins and nutrients).
In a memo sent to schools last week, Los Angeles Unified School District Assistant Supt. Maria Reza said the Narconon presentations are “not based on science” and warned schools to use only drug prevention materials that are “research validated” and approved by the district.
L.A. Unified’s chief operating officer, Tim Buresh, said in an interview Wednesday that the district would conduct a review of the program and decide soon whether to issue a more forceful statement against Narconon. “If we become aware of a program that has questionable content, we will advise people against that,” Buresh said.
Narconon leaders said they offered the program free. Buresh said the district would look at whether any school funds had been spent on the lectures or related materials.
District officials said the lectures had been given at about 15 Los Angeles district schools, but they were uncertain which ones.
Similarly, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said his office had no way to know how many California schools played host to Narconon because individual teachers may have invited speakers without formal approval or records. Narconon leaders said presentations had been given at more than 350 California schools since 2000.
O’Connell expressed concern about the lectures after learning about Narconon’s activities in some schools from a series of articles earlier this month in the San Francisco Chronicle. He asked his staff to evaluate the program, a probe that is expected to take several months.
“We want information disseminated in our schools to be factual, accurate and helpful,” O’Connell said Wednesday. “We certainly don’t want untested and unscientific theories presented as truthful.”
Clark Carr, president of Hollywood-based Narconon International, said the that school presentations were based on sound principles and that the program had no motive beyond wanting to keep youngsters off of drugs. He insisted the classes did not include any proselytizing for Scientology.
“If people had never heard of Mr. Hubbard, the lectures would still stand up, because they are based on real science,” Carr said. “We don’t use scare tactics. We come in with the straight facts. We’re helping kids get off drugs. We’ve been doing it for a long time. We’re going to continue doing it.”
Carr said the organization approaches individual school health teachers or principals, informs them of the program and asks if they are interested in a presentation.
The Narconon program dates to the mid-1960s, when an Arizona prison inmate used Hubbard’s teachings to battle his heroin addiction.
Inspired by Hubbard’s belief that personal abilities can help people overcome their problems, William Benitez founded Narconon in 1966 and eventually helped spread the program with others influenced by Hubbard. Hubbard died in 1986.
Narconon later built on Hubbard’s research into drug withdrawal and detoxification to establish rehabilitation procedures, including the use of vitamins and mineral supplements to ease symptoms and intensive sweating in saunas to reduce the residual effects of drug use, according to a Narconon website and interviews. The site provides links to several studies that the group says support Narconon’s procedures.
Carr said that Narconon presenters deliver a narrow piece of the overall approach in their school lectures, focusing on prevention and leaving out information about rehabilitation techniques, such as sweating in saunas.
Narconon’s educational programs are now one part of a vast enterprise that includes drug rehabilitation and treatment centers and a series of books and videos aimed at helping people live drug-free.
The debate over Narconon began after officials in the San Francisco Unified School District raised questions about the program’s scientific validity and its presentations at more than two dozen schools there.
San Francisco officials sent Narconon Drug Prevention and Education Inc., a Narconon affiliate, a letter in February asking the Los Angeles-based group to clarify several aspects of its classroom presentations, including a statement that “all drugs are basically poisons.”
In a written response, the group’s director, Tony Bylsma, insisted that the statement was accurate based on “recognized and professional sources.”
Narconon has surfaced in other school districts, including Santa Ana, where the group presented a lecture to a health class at Saddleback High School in 1996 and has not returned since, said district spokeswoman Lucy Arajuo-Cook.
Arajuo-Cook said district Supt. Al Mijares was concerned about the issue when he learned about it Wednesday. She said the district would issue a notice to ensure that “no one does anything on their own” and that the group is not invited to any future classes.
Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.
June 24, 2004
Duke Helfand and Cara Mia DiMassa, Times Staff Writers