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JOSEPH N. BELL

Viewpoints Collide in Classroom

February 16, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Mike Marino was blind-sided a few weeks ago, and he's mad. But he also has no intention of pulling out of the game.

Marino is a stocky, balding, mustachioed, feisty psychology teacher at Corona del Mar High School. For the past 11 years at his present school and for 8 years before that at Newport Harbor High School, Marino has taught a sequence on homosexuality as an integral part of his psychology class. In the process of presenting that material, he has brought speakers from the gay community into his classroom to answer students' questions.

"I've never had a protest of any kind about this for 19 years," he told me in his classroom the other day. "My lectures are always the same--very low-key and factual."

Every precaution is taken to make sure both parents and students know the course content. The class is elective; no student is required to take it. Those who elect it take home a description of the course, along with a letter giving parents the option of withdrawing their children during the section on homosexuality. "And I give the kids that option, too, even if the parents don't object," Marino said.

Last year, one of Marino's students, whom he describes as "deeply religious," gave him a videotape at the first class meeting and asked him to show it to the class. Marino took it home and viewed it.

"It was," Marino says, "a fundamentalist religious tract that spent most of its time condemning psychology and secular humanism." Marino told the student that if he was committed to what was on the tape, he shouldn't be taking this class and suggested that he opt out. But the boy said he wanted to take the class--and did.

Later in the semester, Marino said, the parents asked to audit the class, something that he encourages. They appeared with some friends and observed the sequence on homosexuality, he said. A few weeks later, they asked to meet with Marino and his principal, Tom Jacobson. At that meeting, Marino said, the parents expressed strong misgivings about the classes on sexual disorders and homosexuality.

"They attributed comments to me that came from the kids," Marino told me. "I give a prosaic, canned lecture, but I can't control the questions that the kids ask afterward. I just try to answer them as straight and factually as possible."

Soon after this session, letters started coming to John Nicoll, superintendent of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, from James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, headquartered in Pomona. Dobson is the man who interviewed serial killer Theodore Bundy just before he was executed last month.

The tape of that interview, in which Bundy suggested that exposure to pornography started him on his string of murders, is being played on Christian fundamentalist radio stations all over the world. It also has been seriously questioned--and even ridiculed--by many professionals in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

According to Nicoll, the letters from Dobson--which Dobson said represented the viewpoint of a group of parents in the Newport-Mesa School District who had contacted him--objected strongly to the homosexual speakers "and certain other materials in Mr. Marino's class."

While all this was going on, Nicoll sent a memo to "principals and appropriate teachers" strongly supporting the policy of inviting "homosexual adults" to "answer questions about their life style" in appropriate classes. Then, less than 6 weeks later, Nicoll reversed himself and ordered Marino to stop inviting gays to appear before his class.

His decision was greeted with praise by the complaining parents. Typical were the comments of Newport Beach citizens Roy Woolsey and Shannon Gustafson, who were quoted in The Times after Nicoll's reversal. Woolsey said discussion of homosexuality belongs in the home, not the classroom, and "if they want to teach psychology, that's fine. But they should keep that stuff out of it."

Gustafson--one of those who monitored Marino's class--said: "I don't want to be represented as anti-homosexual. I see them as alcoholics. They need support and compassion, but they're responsible and have a choice" and that issue "was not presented in a responsible way."

Nicoll--who has been taking a lot of heat since his decision was announced 3 weeks ago--told me: "This has been worked over too much, and I really don't want to make any more comments about it." Then he sighed--and did.

He acknowledged receiving several letters from Dobson ("but I've never talked to the man") and listening to the complaints of a number of parents about Marino's class "that caused me to review some practices I had been remotely aware of before but had never focused on."

"I don't give a hoot what Dobson wants. I changed my position after digging into the matter, and I came to that conclusion myself. Believe me, this is an isolated step; I simply found a small practice that needed to be changed. It's not a harbinger that I've thrown in with the Christian underground."

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