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District Scrambles to Ensure Human Rights Event Is Religion-Free

Officials were unaware of Scientology's role in the international forum at Jordan High in Watts.

October 01, 2005|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles city school officials were caught off guard this week by the Church of Scientology's role in an upcoming event at a South Los Angeles high school, which, while not illegal, is considered unusual.

On Monday, teenagers from about 25 countries are expected to meet with students at Jordan High School in Watts for a conference on human rights. The gathering is part of a three-day event organized by Youth for Human Rights International -- a group with close ties to the Church of Scientology.

Jordan Principal Stephen Strachan and school counselor Al Johnson said that when the idea was broached in early September, conference planners did not make clear the organization's links to Scientology or that the conference would be promoted as a Scientology-sponsored event.

"We never engaged in any conversation about the Church of Scientology," Strachan said Friday. "I never knew they were involved."

Johnson said he was aware that some people involved in the planning were active Scientologists but was surprised Monday when Scientology staff sent out a news release in which the church was listed as a co-organizer.

The release raised concerns for Johnson, Strachan and local area Supt. Sylvia Rousseau that the conference might include religious teachings by the church -- a violation of the separation of church and state.

They hurriedly met with Mary Shuttleworth, director of the youth group, to review the content of the meetings, which will focus on student discussions about their experiences with human rights under various forms of government. A letter was also sent to parents, alerting them to the event and requiring their permission for their children to participate, Rousseau said..

State and Los Angeles Unified School District officials have confronted Scientology before. Last year, the district issued a warning to campuses after more than a dozen schools used a drug prevention program that bases its ideas partly on Scientology research and teachings. In February, a state investigation concluded that the program, called Narconon, failed to "reflect accurate, widely accepted medical and scientific evidence."

In the latest instance, Shuttleworth agreed to remove the church's name from the event's promotional material and said she and church officials had never meant to conceal Scientology's involvement.

"It's only fair that if someone helps you a lot, you give them credit for their work," she said.

A revised news release was distributed the next day.

Shuttleworth, who is a Scientologist, and Leisa Goodman, Scientology's director of human rights, said church staff and members helped refurbish the lighting and sound systems at Jordan's auditorium and produced much of the conference's printed materials.

"We've helped in whatever way we can," Goodman said. "We've been promoting this event like mad to our own community."

The church and the youth group have worked closely on past events. In December 2004, the church hosted a fundraiser at its Celebrity Centre in Hollywood to support a music video produced by Shuttleworth that promotes human rights.

Area Supt. Rousseau said she might have canceled the event if alerted to it earlier, because of the appearance that the church is so closely linked to the event. But she said she was confident that Monday's gathering would remain focused on human rights.

"It is a good thing for young people around the world to meet and get a world view," she said. "But we made it very clear what the limitations of this event will be."

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