Schools shouldn't endorse psycho-fests

The Seattle Times/April 12, 2002

The role of educating children has justifiably broadened over the years to include more than the basic three R's, but encounter-style seminars that leave students emotionally drained should not be part of it.

Especially not to turn a profit.

It is alarming that nearly 300 Seattle Public Schools students have already participated in Challenge Day workshops. These 12- and 13-year-olds went through sessions reminiscent of est, or Lifespring encounter groups, courtesy of a for-profit company. While the goal of the seminars has merit — to create a safe school environment free of teasing and harassment — their methods don't belong under the imprimatur of public education.

That the sessions took place off school property — at St. Joseph Church on Capitol Hill — has little bearing. They were arranged by the co-president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Washington Middle School and approved by the principals at Washington and Meany middle schools.

The emotional intensity of the workshops is troublesome. Schools should not assist in placing children in situations where adults break them down emotionally and, purportedly, rebuild them into better people. Better to leave intensive character building to parents. If parents endorse this therapy, they can arrange it privately for their child.

Another disturbing aspect of encounter groups in the schools is their commercialism. The district has an anti-commercialization policy. Yet, students participating in Challenge Day received information packets about a seminar offered in Seattle next month by Resource Realizations, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company best known for its controversial work in residential behavior-modification for troubled teens.

Sales pitches directly targeted to children place parents in an untenable position. It is the role of parents to sort out what is appropriate for their child, but the job is made more difficult by an end run around them to their children. The cost of these seminars goes from none at the schools to $295 for the next-step session, to more than $800 for a weeklong seminar.

Challenge Day's pilot program in Seattle is the first step in bringing the seminars to a larger market. This should have been expected by district administrators. School districts full of children translate potentially into huge profits.

However, this can also translate into a legal mess the first time a child is emotionally, and irreparably, undone by one of these soul-searching encounters. Seattle's principal corps is a strong one and principals have great autonomy over their schools. But Superintendent Joseph Olchefske should step in and say no this time.

There are plenty of ways to thwart harassment and teasing that don't involve putting children through what many adults wouldn't go through.

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