Published on June 1st, 2017 | by Jane Wickline


Scientology at Samo

On Friday June 19th, Samo principal Dr. Antonio Shelton sent out a voicemail to Samo families saying that, after multiple complaints from parents, the new mandatory-for-underclassmen program Foundation for a Drug-Free World (FDFW) would be immediately discontinued. The 40 percent of underclassmen who had not yet participated in FDFW seminars when the voicemail was sent would receive an alternative program in the final weeks of school. And even though this was what I wanted, and even though I’m relieved that they eventually came around, I’m still annoyed.

We’ve known about the drug problem in Santa Monica for decades, but somehow we’re still left scrambling at the last minute every time drugs are pushed to the top of the agenda by a tragedy or the assembly of an angry parent group. The issue with admin’s treatment of the drug problem at Samo is that, through their complacency, they allowed FDFW to get to this stage and then did not acknowledge that they had messed up. Samo needs to stop being so reactive about issues as important as this one is. There needs to be a well-thought-out long term plan for educating students about the risks of drug use so that Samo is not left vulnerable to groups like FDFW.

After the LSD-related death of Samo freshman Andre Zuczek made the need for quick action on drug education apparent, the Scientology-sponsored program approached Dr. Shelton and told him their program was not only free, but ready for immediate implementation. It also had favorable recommendations from several established organizations including the Boys Scouts of America and the Boys and Girls Club.

FDFW’s pitch must have sounded great, and only afterwards did Shelton learn of the association with the controversial church. On the Scientology official website, FDFW is cited as a division of the church. On the FDFW website, however, the Church is not mentioned at all. This is a very intentional omission that makes it easier for the group to convince public schools they are entirely secular. Not initially seeing the connection is a fairly understandable mistake on its own. But had there been a more effective plan in place, Shelton would not have needed to make a snap decision without properly vetting the solicitors. Upon finding out about the Scientology connection, he decided to go forward, claiming that regardless of any church/state overlap, the seminars themselves were free of any outside influence or agenda.

“They didn’t say anything that would lead you to Scientology,” Shelton said in an interview for The Samohi just days before he cancelled the program. “What I don’t want to do is take away from the purpose. My agenda is not about Scientology.”

This was a fairly reasonable decision too, but whether he knew it at the time or not, the seminars were not free of a religious agenda. Many of the Foundation’s claims about the effects of drug/alcohol use are directly in line with the teachings of the Church and are virtually nonexistent with reliable medical authorities. According to a 2015 Slate Magazine article, the concept of the body storing lipid-soluble drugs for years was first proposed by L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology) in his self-help book “Clear Body, Clear Mind”. Moreover, the presenters and pamphlets hold that all drugs–not just LSD–can cause flashbacks, which is entirely unverified.

There are countless other bizarre claims in the pamphlets and on the Foundation’s website, but here’s just one more that stuck out to me:

“Drugs are essentially poisons. The amount taken determines the effect. A small amount acts as a stimulant (speeds you up). A greater amount acts as a sedative (slows you down). An even larger amount poisons and can kill. This is true of any drug. Only the amount needed to achieve the effect differs.”

Again, this seems untrue. I’ve always been taught that different types of drugs do different things; stimulants speed you up and opiates slow you down regardless of how much you take. It’s difficult to differentiate these pseudoscience-y assertions from facts, and it’s even more difficult when citations are not provided. It is the responsibility of the school to ensure that when students attend assemblies and seminars, they do not need to question the information they are presented with.  

Students who participated in the seminars were given a stack of pamphlets, each breaking down the risks and effects a particular drug. They covered a wide range of substances–alcohol, cocaine, crack cocaine, meth, and heroin to name a few–with one obvious omission. No tobacco products were mentioned anywhere.

Tobacco is the leading cause of cancer and nicotine is the most addictive substance in the world. I looked into Scientology’s stance on cigarettes, and it turns out that tobacco is the one illicit substance that the church is not explicitly against. Scientologists believe that drug/alcohol use of any kind can have serious spiritual consequences, but they do not have a policy against cigarettes. L. Ron Hubbard was a notoriously heavy smoker.

Previous articles have commented on the organization’s outlandish scare-tactics and questionable statistics, but there is never any mention of the tobacco issue, maybe because it’s difficult to prove. The Church website does not say cigarettes are okay. It doesn’t say anything about cigarettes at all. But that in itself is telling when you think about the strictness of Scientology’s policies on everything else. They are not allowed to drink or use any illegal drugs, so it seems like tobacco is their only outlet. In fact, cigarettes are such an important part of the Scientologist community that it has become a sort of stereotype that its members are smokers.

Even if the seminars had been informative and accurate, I think that the clear church/state overlap should have been enough for Dr. Shelton to have declined their offer from the get-go. And even if there had been no religious affiliation of any kind, they still should have had someone (anyone) watch one of the presentations before deciding to make half of the school come early on a Wednesday. I don’t have any proof that they didn’t but I feel like if they had, they would have seen that the motivational speakers were scattered and uninspiring, fear tactics were used liberally, and none of the claims made were cited.

This all may seem a bit tangential, but it’s important because without understanding how blatantly bad this was, it is easy to brush off the need for reform as a luxury the district cannot afford. The disaster of FDFW needs to be a wakeup call.  The reason that the organization  refused to even mention the most dangerous substance in the world became clear to me after one google search. In fact, one google search of the program’s name instantly brings up the Slate Magazine article and dozens of others criticizing both the information presented and the motives behind FDFW.

So why did no one in the district notice? Why did they sign onto this program that anyone could have predicted would anger parents? I think they probably did notice the warning signs and chose to ignore them because FDFW cost Samo absolutely nothing and they needed to make a decision fast.

No one person is singularly responsible for choosing FWFD, and I don’t think anyone will be hurt in the long term because of a few bad seminars. Dr. Shelton inherited this mess only two months before people began complaining about the lack of early intervention at Samo. And while I do think he made mistakes, they were, for the most part, understandable mistakes. Assigning blame will not help anyone. More importantly, this is an opportunity for district officials to put together a task force to seriously address the problem.

We know what works: good speakers, credible data, and consistent reminders over the course of high school. We also know that many students are currently getting nothing after they finish freshman seminar, even though they are much more likely to be exposed to serious drugs in later grades. One idea that I’ve heard proposed several times is a sort of ‘senior seminar’ that would cover drug awareness, basic taxes and budgeting, and other things that kids on the brink of adulthood will otherwise need to figure out through trial and error. Another is an annual school-wide presentation in the greek that could be completed in a single class period. Whatever it is, it needs to be discussed in depth and it needs to be a district priority.

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