Longform

Christian Crusade

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Burns expresses sympathy for children like Angel, whose very survival depends on not repeating their parents' mistakes. But she admits she doesn't know how to prevent them from becoming the victims of her effort to rid the Glendale schools of "secular humanism."

"I know there are families where children can't look to their parents for positive role models," Burns says. "It is just so different from the world I know. It's boggling some of the problems those children face, I know that.

"I'm the first to admit I'm not a professional, I don't have all the answers," she says. "But I am a parent and I think there's some credibility in that." Her oldest daughter is Senator John McCain's top nominee to the U.S. Air Force Academy this year and her younger daughter was in the "gifted" program while she attended Horizon school.

Much of the current conflict in the public school system can be traced to a point three years ago, when Burns learned of a new "behavioral modification" program from her daughter's teacher, who thought the child might benefit from it. (At the time, Burns' youngest daughter was bored in her regular classes and drawing teacher complaints that she was disruptive, says her mother.)

But when she sought information about this new program, Burns says, she became alarmed both by its content and by the attitude of school officials toward her questions. "The `behavior modification' program was actually part of a drug prevention program which seemed to me to undermine the family," Burns says.

"It employed a lot of psychoanalytical techniques and was going to be woven throughout the school day in writing exercises and class discussions.

"Everything seemed aimed at getting the kids to make their own decisions and establish their own values, instead of listening to their parents," she says. "This was right at the time of Nancy Reagan's `Just Say No to Drugs' program, and yet the Glendale program didn't say drugs are bad, it said it was all a matter of moderation."

The Glendale program contains an emphatic "Just Say No" message, say school officials who reject Burns' analysis. What really irks the dissidents, say district administrators, is that the program, called "Children Are People, Too," doesn't stop there. "The reason we didn't want to end with `Just Say No' was because we didn't feel it was effective to stop there," says Marilyn Henley, assistant superintendent of the district.

The intent of the self-analysis and discussion is to build self-esteem and problem-solving skills--psychological armor the children will need in order to resist drugs as a way out of their sometimes-formidable personal problems, says school board member Sandra Malone, a supporter of the program.

But Burns wondered why the schools couldn't instead send a clear moral message. "When I asked Henley why they didn't just come straight out and say drugs are bad, she told me they couldn't because a lot of these kids' parents do drugs and it would make them mad," Burns recounts.

Henley denies making such a statement and says, "All the research we looked at showed that educating children about drugs is important, building self-esteem is important." The program on which Glendale's is based, she adds, is nationally recognized for its effectiveness.

But when Burns showed the drug prevention program to fellow parents in her school, she says, each had their own objections as well, concerns that ranged from invasion of privacy to involuntary religious indoctrination in secular humanism. So she gathered some friends together and went to the school district officials who, she contends, "made us look like fools, like we were religious nuts."

Burns says she had never been political up till then, but discovered Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum shared her concerns. She joined the Eagle Forum, she says, in order to have a source of national research on school programs. "We didn't see ourselves as extremists," she says. "We just wanted our questions answered."

School officials and their parent advisers, however, recall being beset by a group of jargon-spouting reactionaries who had nothing to offer as an alternative to the drug program they were attacking. "They came in carrying these three-ring notebooks with preprinted material, asking all the standard Eagle Forum questions," recalls Jeanette Weis, a parent on the district's advisory committee and supporter of the drug prevention program. "They would not engage in a dialogue at all. They just kept throwing around phrases like `secular humanism,' which they couldn't even define."

"Someone asked me to define `secular humanism' and I couldn't then, because I really hadn't been religious up to that point," Burns recalls. "But I knew what my concerns were. And I know what it means now."

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Kathleen Stanton