Narconon: Misleading antidrug program back in public schools

San Francisco Chronicle/May 27, 2014

By Nanette Asimov

Narconon is back in California public schools.

The Scientology-linked antidrug program visited classrooms freely for years until 2005, when medical experts and the state Department of Education determined it was promoting bogus science. The alarm went up a decade ago after The Chronicle revealed that Narconon's antidrug messages to students were based not on medical evidence, according to the experts, but on the practices of Scientology.

Narconon officials say the program is secular and that a firewall exists between it and the Church of Scientology. In fact, the connection to the religion was not readily apparent, a public school teacher told The Chronicle.

"I'm not in the business of miseducation, so if I know something is wrong, I'm not going to keep teaching it," said Heather Rottenborn, who teaches biology and anatomy at Ann Sobrato High in Morgan Hill and was surprised to learn of Narconon's connection to Scientology. Her school has hosted a Narconon lecturer in several classes since at least 2011.

Narconon is based on concepts developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the late science-fiction writer who created the Church of Scientology and Dianetics in the 1950s. The religion opposes drugs and alcohol, which practitioners believe interfere with achieving a state of mental purity that Scientology calls "Clear."

The antidrug message and its related notions of how drugs work in the body - including the idea, rejected by medical experts, that drugs reside in body fat for years and can cause people to feel high during times of stress - are part of the Narconon program and drug education materials the group currently makes available online.
Teacher confusion

One science teacher from a Bay Area school that has hosted Narconon told The Chronicle that she believed what the lecturers taught her students about drugs residing in body fat.

"I learned that in my training," the teacher said firmly. "I'm very familiar with that concept."

She began to have doubts, however, after learning that the state's review had rejected the notion as pseudoscience and that it was an idea from Scientology.

"I would never have guessed. I need to double-check now," the teacher said, and asked that her name not be used.

The California Department of Education spent up to $30,000 to review Narconon's claims in 2005 before issuing a strong warning to schools about Narconon.

"Narconon's drug prevention program does not reflect accurate, widely-accepted medical and scientific evidence," Jack O'Connell, then the state superintendent of public instruction, told schools in a letter posted on the department's website Feb. 24, 2005. Department officials said they stand by those findings today.

The department lacks the authority to oust programs, but some school districts banned Narconon outright, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, which had its own medical experts review the curriculum.

Yet Narconon has given free presentations in at least 28 California public schools in other districts since 2007, The Chronicle found.

Thirteen are in the Bay Area, in Fremont, Los Altos, Morgan Hill, San Jose, San Ramon, Santa Clara and Santa Rosa.

Narconon officials say the curriculum has been "carefully revised" over the past decade. But they declined to explain how and would not allow a Chronicle reporter to sit in on a lecture. One school that had invited a reporter to sit in on a Narconon presentation canceled it when told of the state's findings.

Narconon curriculum

However, The Chronicle examined two sets of Narconon curriculum, copyrighted in 2008 and 2005, that are currently offered to public schools. Both share concepts with Scientology. The "tone scale," for example, is a Scientology doctrine dealing with emotions that is explained on the church's website and featured in student exercises in the Narconon curriculum.

Narconon officials proudly attest to their presence in the schools.

"Drug education specialists from Narconon Vista Bay travel from Monterey to South Lake Tahoe, and from Santa Rosa to Sacramento, visiting middle schools and high schools," Clark Carr, president of Narconon International and a Scientologist, wrote in August in promotional materials for an annual golf tournament in Berkeley's Tilden Park to raise funds for Narconon's free school visits.

"In the last couple of years, the number of youth who heard the anti-drug message have increased from 11,000 to 22,000," Carr claimed in the promotion.

Narconon International, in Los Angeles County, is the headquarters of the organization, which has centers around the world, including Narconon Vista Bay in Watsonville, that offer drug rehabilitation services. Carr, who spoke extensively with The Chronicle a decade ago, declined new requests for an interview. But he sent a statement saying that Narconon's revised curriculum "is getting terrific response from the students and teachers. ... Drug abuse prevention services are an important part of Narconon's approach to handling drug addiction."

He added: "Narconon has been responding to increasing demand from schools in Northern California. Narconon provides this program as a public service at no charge, funded entirely by Narconon centers."

Scientology, created in 1951, won tax-exempt church status from the Internal Revenue Service in 1993. Hubbard died in 1986. Soon afterward, his followers legally grouped his many enterprises into religious and secular divisions.

The Scientologists created the nonprofit Association for Better Living and Education in 1988 to oversee four secular programs for delivering Hubbard's ideas to the public: The Way to Happiness Foundation to promote his 21 "moral precepts"; Applied Scholastics, an education program; Criminon, a "life improvement" course for prison inmates; and Narconon.

Narconon International has an income of nearly $16 million, IRS records show. Another 22 Narconon centers, many of them also identified in the records as Narconon International, exist across the country, from Florida to Hawaii.

A center at 262 Gaffey Road in Watsonville is called Narconon International on the IRS records, but is named Narconon Vista Bay or Narconon Redwood Cliffs on websites. The site collected revenue of more than $12 million in 2011, IRS records show. The documents also show that the job title for Juan Carlos R. Ubillus, who does Narconon school lectures, is "senior director of expansion."

Negative review

The Vista Bay website features dozens of appreciative letters from teachers across California thanking Narconon or Ubillus for school lectures. All were written since the state's negative review of Narconon's curriculum in 2005.

The review was conducted for the state Department of Education by 14 independent experts in substance abuse and health education - including medical doctors and university faculty - under the auspices of the California Healthy Kids Resource Center, a state-funded branch of the Alameda County Office of Education that maintains a lending library of approved health education materials for educators.

Among the inaccuracies the agency found:

-- Drugs are stored in fat and later released, causing the person to feel high again and want to use again.

-- Drugs burn up vitamins and nutrients, resulting in pain and relapse.

-- Marijuana-induced loss of vitamins and nutrients causes the "munchies."

Researchers also found misleading statements in Narconon's materials, including the idea that drugs are "poison" and that they "ruin creativity and dull senses." And they criticized the use of ex-addicts as presenters because it "may tacitly reinforce student perceptions that drug use really isn't risky."

Despite the inaccuracies the California review found in Narconon's curriculum, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists seven Narconon treatment centers on its National Directory of Drug and Alcohol Treatment Programs, including one California site, Vista Bay. Inclusion means the programs are licensed in their states and have filled out a federal survey for statistical purposes.

The state agency that licenses such facilities, the California Department of Health Care Services, said it is investigating four complaints against the Vista Bay facility, but would not release information until the inquiries are concluded.

Scientology similarities

Narconon operates on Hubbard's idea that drugs nestle in body fat but leak out and cause people to feel high all over again, even years later.

"One does not need to run a marathon to have them re-released. It could be as simple as walking to the mailbox or getting in an argument with a family member where stress and increased heart rate and blood pressure occurs," according to one Narconon website. "Once these toxins are re-released the person will get a craving, thought, urge, sometimes can taste [sic] or smell the drug or feel the effects of it and they then go and use the drug or alcohol and relapse occurs."

Narconon centers rely on saunas, which participants believe sweat out drugs from fat.

"Our program utilizes vitamin and mineral therapy, nutrition and a dry sauna in a process that removes the residual drugs lodged in the body, greatly decreasing the chance of relapse," according to the Narconon Vista Bay website.

It's a belief shared by the Church of Scientology.

"In the secular setting, it's Narconon. In the church, it's the Purification handling," a church spokeswoman told The Chronicle in 2004.

According to Hubbard's Scientology text "Clear Body, Clear Mind," drugs create negative "mental image pictures" that interfere with the ability to achieve "mental and spiritual gain."

The church's website explains that "such pictures are actually three-dimensional, containing color, sound and smell, as well as other perceptions."

Narconon encourages its lecturers to introduce similar concepts to students.

'Drugs are ... poison'

"Our take-home message is that drugs are essentially poison," Narconon's Carr told The Chronicle in 2004. "This is how we basically explain it to them. Drugs scramble pictures. When people take drugs, they affect the mental pictures."

Mental pictures are the subject of Lesson 5 in Narconon's 2008 "Drug Education High School Curriculum," available free on the Web. It doesn't mention Scientology. But the book guides the presenter to tell students to think of "pictures" of good things they've experienced and illustrates the concept as rectangles emanating from a person's head. The book has the presenter explain that drug use eliminates certain pictures, leaving "blank spots in the memory."

A thicker, 2005 version of the curriculum called "Drug Education Presentation Scripts" currently for sale on the Narconon website includes ideas discredited by medical experts and addiction specialists for the state and for San Francisco Unified School District. The curriculum says drugs cause vitamin deficiency and nestle in fat for long periods.

The book tells the instructor to point to an illustration of "drugs stored in the fat" and tell students about what happened five years after he last smoked marijuana, drank alcohol and took cocaine.

In the story, the instructor is in a Narconon sauna to "flush the old drugs out" and tells students: "Whoa, I start feeling kind of weird ... the next thing I know, there's purple frogs and 'Mickey Mouses' doing somersaults through the middle of the sauna."

The script has the instructor tell students that after a month of daily saunas, drugs were "pouring out of my body." And once the saunas were done, "I did an IQ test and my score shot up 22 points."

The 2008 version for high school students simply tells students that drugs "stuck in the body" affect health "negatively."

Despite the state's warning in 2005, dozens of California public schools have welcomed Narconon into their classrooms.

"Students now have a broad understanding of drug addiction, its consequences, and the path they would need to take if they had to go to rehabilitation," one teacher from Irvington High in Fremont wrote in a thank-you letter to Narconon on May 2, 2012.

The teacher declined to talk about Narconon.

At Santa Rosa High, a teacher wrote Narconon in 2011 that the lecture to her Life Skills class was "poignant and powerful ... awe inspiring."

The school did not return calls.

Appreciated free lecture

The health department chair at Mount Pleasant High in San Jose told Narconon in 2009 that her health budget was only $150, so she appreciated the free "message of what drugs can do to your body, brain & lives."

But other educators, like Rottenborn, were appalled to learn from The Chronicle that they had been relying on a program the state had rejected.

One school, Santa Clara High, abruptly canceled a Narconon lecture booked for Feb. 27 after Principal Greg Shelby learned of the state's review.

"Santa Clara Unified teachers teach the science of drug effects on the human body using district and state aligned, research-based science standards," spokeswoman Jennifer Dericco said, explaining the cancellation.

Steve Heilig of the San Francisco Medical Society, one of five experts who evaluated Narconon for the San Francisco Unified School District in 2004, is now urging school districts to check with the state when searching for drug education programs.

"There has been no valid, peer-reviewed publications or other scientific advances supporting Narconon's theories since our initial evaluation," Heilig said. "One imperative of drug education is that we not deceive students, as once they discover that you are not telling them factual information, they are likely to disbelieve everything you say."

Yet in his statement, Carr said the Narconon curriculum "has been carefully revised and empirically tested and validated through a peer-reviewed study."

He did not identify the study or respond to questions from The Chronicle about how the curriculum had changed. But an evaluation endorsing Narconon's methods appeared in the online journal "Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy" in March 2008.

Critics say that study is a self-funded paper co-authored by a former Narconon official, Marie Cecchini. The paper contains a disclosure that Cecchini spent two years running a Narconon center.

'A flawed study'

"Overall, my impression is that this is a flawed study with modest results that at best say that the Narconon program seems to be better than nothing - but maybe only a little better. And even that isn't certain," said David Touretzky, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a leading critic of Scientology.

Among the problems cited is that the study compares a largely female group of students (those receiving Narconon) with a group of largely male students (non-Narconon).

"Since young males have greater risk-taking behavior, that alone invalidates the study in my opinion," Touretzky said. "This discrepancy is not even acknowledged in the article, much less explained."

Tom Herman, administrator of the Coordinated School Health and Safety Office at the California Department of Education, said state officials stand by their 2005 findings about Narconon.

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