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Wary of Fights With Conservative Christians, Teachers Censor Lessons

August 22, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ As schools around the country open for the fall term, teachers wary of battles with conservative Christians are thinking twice before asking children to write in journals, use their imagination or study people from other cultures.

Kevin Teeley, president of the Lake Washington Education Association in Washington state, said curriculum challenges by religious conservatives have a chilling effect on teachers.

″What we will never be able to measure is how many books were not taught, how many topics were not discussed, how many newspaper articles were not brought into the classroom that would have been very valuable for kids to have read and learned about because of the fear that teacher had that they might become the object of another challenge,″ he said. Robert Simonds, president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, said the self-censorship by teachers and school administrators is healthy.

″It doesn’t mean they can’t teach with freedom,″ he said in an interview. ″It just means freedom has certain limits.″

Writing in Educational Leadership, the magazine published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Simonds describes some of those limits:

-″Who has the most to lose when public schools go off on another change binge? Parents, that’s who 3/8 And of course, the innocent children who are being experimented with.″

-″Under the name ‘multicultural education,’ students are taught that whites (European racists) owe minorities a living and are murderers, rapists and bigots ... All human beings must be seen as equal and every race respected (including the white Europeans.)″

-″The manipulation of parents with misinformation - about abortion services, school prayer, sex education, school-based (abortion) clinics, gay rights, values clarification, evolution and creation science (nonreligious), busing, textbook and curriculum selection - must be stopped.″

Though religious conservatives say they should not be lumped together as a single group, there is one thing they agree on.

Simonds and representatives of the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family say they represent the view of parents. ″We’re not generating educational philosophy from here as much as we’re trying to reflect it,″ said Paul Hetrick, a spokesman for Focus on the Family.

The groups also say they are not trying to cut themselves off from teachers and principals.

″It’s important to remember that we do want a dialogue with teachers and we do respect what they’re trying to do,″ said Mike Russell, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition. ″It’s a difficult job.″

But some teachers are changing their curriculum and their teaching style, even if it goes against their principles, just to avoid conflict. They don’t want to get hate mail, be called names or find themselves lambasted in the media. They also don’t want to lose their jobs - and their reputations.

″People from the far right will do things like print up flyers that say, ‘Do you know you have a pervert teaching around your child?’ and they’ll pass it around neighborhoods,″ Teeley said. ″This is what these teachers are faced with.″

At a roundtable during the National Education Association’s annual convention last month, Donald Evans, a high school math and computer science teacher in Sinking Springs, Pa., said teachers have had problems when raising the concept of multicultural diversity. Other roundtable participants responded with a resounding, ″Oh, yes.″

Evans said so much pressure was put on a teacher who attempted to show the film ″The Last of the Mohicans″ in class that the principal of the school asked her not to.

The union advised the teacher to acquiesce, he said. ″We told her, ’We could probably win the battle and lose the war.″

Several teachers talked about books being banned from their schools, or offending sections being blacked out. Mike Russell, spokesman for the Christian Coalition, said his organization has concerns about novels with sexually explicit language or graphic descriptions of violence. But he added, ″We do not advocate the removal of any book or material from the library.″ Instead, the group has called for creation of a parental-guidance shelf in the library.

Teachers say objections also are raised to students writing in journals because of claims it infringes on their privacy. ″It somehow is viewed as a subversive activity,″ said Diane Dyk, a speech teacher in Bismarck, N.D.

Teeley said teachers have been challenged for telling their students to close their eyes and imagine they’re going to be a faroff place. ″That’s meditation, visualization, guided imagery,″ he said.

Sex and health education programs are another frequent area of attack, teachers say.

Susan McFarland, a high school math and health teacher in Salt Lake City, Utah, said some parents had objected to her use of correct anatomical names for reproductive organs.

And Susie Payne, a fifth-grade math teacher and president of the local NEA chapter in Shreveport, La., said texts were censored if there was any mention of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. She said teachers were told, ″We do not want you to talk about this unless you say it’s a deviant lifestyle.″

Simonds plans to meet later this month with representatives of the Education Department and educational groups in an attempt to seek a common ground. ″We’re trying to quit calling school people our enemies and we’re trying to quit calling people extreme left and radical left,″ he said.

But at the same time, he said, ″parents have a right to bring any kind of pressure they want.″

Though recognizing the role of families and local control in education, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has ″substantive concerns about the danger of censorship by any group,″ spokeswoman Susan Hlesciak Hall said.

″Students should be encouraged to consider all points of view before making a decision, and their rights to access information should be supported and respected.″

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