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Parental Consent : Long Beach Schools Affirm Right of Review After Complaints of Occult Filmstrips

October 02, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

After complaints that two filmstrips used by the district promote witchcraft and occultism, Long Beach school officials have affirmed the right of parents to individually review instructional materials.

Both filmstrips have been temporarily removed from school libraries pending the outcome of an investigation into the legal ramifications of removing them permanently, according to E. Tom Giugni, superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District.

Giugni said he planned to meet Oct. 16 with parents who brought the complaints and discuss specific ways in which they--and all parents--might in the future be notified of their right to preview specific materials to be used in a classroom or library.

"Then they could make individual choices as to whether or not their youngsters should be allowed to view things," Giugni said. "When that process is in place to the satisfaction of the parents, it won't be a question of (specific) materials anymore."

The discussion has its roots in an incident in April, when Donna Voetee's daughter, Tricia, then 10, visited the library at Addams Elementary School with her fifth-grade class. On the program was a filmstrip promoting a Newberry award-winning children's mystery book called "The Headless Cupid" by Zilpha Snyder.

"She came home very upset," recalls Voetee, 31. "We are Christians, and Tricia knows that seances are against God's law."

The seance in question was featured in the filmstrip, which tells the story of a girl named Amanda who moves to a haunted house and, in attempting to solve the mystery of a missing statue head, introduces several other children to the intrigues of occultism. Voetee said the filmstrip--which school district officials say deals with a child's attempts to adapt to a new environment and is designed to motivate students to read--offended her family's Christian ethics by promoting values that smack of witchcraft. "It was totally occultic," she said of the strip. "It was horrible."

Apparently other parents agreed. A coalition of them, representing various Christian-oriented groups, met with Giugni several times about the matter. Giugni temporarily suspended use of the filmstrip--and one other deemed objectionable--and directed his administrative staff to reiterate to parents their right to preview potentially offensive classroom material.

"Sometimes we just assume" that parents know about policies, Giugni said, adding that although Long Beach parents have always had the right to review instructional materials, they have not generally been informed of that right. One solution, he said, would be to mention it in the letter sent out at the beginning of each school year to all parents in the district. The parents who complained "have really brought a refocus," Giugni said.

In addition to "The Headless Cupid," he said, he had temporarily suspended use of a filmstrip promoting a book called "Banner in the Sky" by James Ullman, which deals with a young man's attempt to emulate and surpass the mountain-climbing abilities of his dead father, whose ghost plays prominently in the plot.

Both filmstrips, according to William H. Marmion, director of curriculum and instructional resources, are among about 300 titles used by school librarians and teachers over the past several years to interest children in reading. As part of a library education program, he said, elementary school classes visit their school libraries at least once a week.

"With all due respect to the separation of church and state, our intent is not to teach the occult as part of the curriculum," said Marmion, who characterized the use of occultism in both strips as an "artistic vehicle" employed by the authors to craft stories dealing with human relationships. "If one is preoccupied with concern about the occult, then one might miss the point of the story."

Whether the strips are returned to circulation, Giugni said, will depend on the district legal department's opinion, which he expects to have before he meets with the parents. But by focusing on the right of parents to individually prevent their children from viewing objectionable materials, he said, he hopes to shift the discussion from the content of the materials themselves to the means by which parents can exercise that right.

Permanent Removal Sought

The parents say they do not object to the books depicted by the filmstrips being in school libraries, because checking out a library book implies an element of choice. They also applaud Giugni for responding to their concerns and his emphasis on parental review of school materials, but some add that they won't be satisfied until the filmstrips are permanently removed.

"If an ingredient served in the school cafeteria was found to cause cancer, we would want it removed," said Janette Hoekman, who has two children attending district schools and is married to a Wilson High School math teacher. "(This material) teaches lying, stealing, sacrifice and keeping things from your parents. It doesn't serve the best interests of the community."

The parents say they are especially concerned about a scheduled broadcast of "The Headless Cupid" in December over an educational cable television network available to local classrooms. To urge district officials against using that broadcast, and to keep an eye out for other objectionable material, they say, they intend to keep meeting.

"Parents should be involved in the educational process," said Jeff McKnight, an oil company employee and the father of two. "We're not gearing up for a fight; we just want to establish a relationship. What we want is to create a new level of awareness in the schools."

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