Clayton Wilcox gives his “State of the Schools” address at the Pinellas Park City Auditorum in April. The superintendent spoke at the Fort Harrison Hotel last weekend.
Pinellas’ new school superintendent may have been unaware of the Church of Scientology ‘s controversial past when he addressed it last weekend.
In his seven months on the job, Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox has met with almost any group that will listen to him talk about the achievement gap. But his weekend appearance at the Church of Scientology headquarters in Clearwater suggests he needs a little tutoring himself.
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“One of the hallmarks of our administration over time will be using those talents and those skills that are found not just in the conventional churches that are typically recognized,” Wilcox said, “but churches of all different denominations, of all different flavors.”
The Scientologists are not just a different denomination, and Wilcox should know the difference. Church officials have made a concerted effort recently to play a more visible role in civic and political life, but their history is anything but constructive.
The Scientologists arrived in Clearwater three decades ago, buying up land under an assumed name and, according to FBI documents, devising plans to make the city its world headquarters and to discredit anyone who got in their way. The founder, former science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, once wrote a “fair game” doctrine proclaiming that church enemies “may be tricked, sued or lied to, or destroyed.” He later repudiated those words, but not before Scientologists began to carry them out.
The church planted spies in a variety of places, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Clearwater Sun newspaper, the state attorney’s office, and the offices of attorneys representing the St. Petersburg Times . Smear campaigns were conducted against a former Clearwater mayor and the husband of a Times reporter. At one point, nine of its highest-ranking members were convicted of conspiring to infiltrate federal agencies to steal documents.
Today’s church officers try to distance themselves from that past, but they have never really come clean. Just last year, the church quietly settled a wrongful-death lawsuit in the case of Lisa McPherson, an apparently healthy 36-year-old church member who died after 17 mysterious days in the church’s care. During the official investigations, the church responded by suing the medical examiner and calling her a “hateful liar” for finding that McPherson went without fluids for five to 10 days; videotaping a sidewalk protester in what a judge called a game of “picket chicken”; and hiring private investigators to follow and videotape a former church member who was scheduled to testify.
Wilcox spoke in Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel, where McPherson spent her final days. Among those in the audience were Pinellas politicians such as School Board members Mary Brown, Janet Clark and Mary Russell; Rep. Everett Rice, R-Treasure Island and the former sheriff; Sheriff Jim Coats; Circuit Judge Linda Babb; Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater; and Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson. For politicians sensitive to appearances, their eagerness to court support in the very building where the state attorney charged Scientology with committing felony crimes in the McPherson case reflects a lack of sensitivity or a significant memory lapse. The charges against Scientology were later dropped because the then-medical examiner changed her conclusions five years after her initial decision that McPherson died of complications from dehydration.
What exactly does Wilcox think the Church of Scientology would bring to the table? There are plenty of other venues for the superintendent to visit to seek help on education issues such as the achievement gap. If he was unaware of Scientology’s history and the Fort Harrison’s role, he should have done his homework and sought advice. If he knew their background and spoke anyway, he should have known better.