Peace courses in school stir controversy

SANTA PAULA, CALIF. — SANTA PAULA, Calif. - Marisol Candalario learned plenty about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and other military conflicts.

But in her time as a public school student, the 18-year-old learned little about the nonviolent movements that also helped shape world history.


She had never heard of Mohandas K. Gandhi. She didn't know that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, or that a group of pacifists called conscientious objectors subjected themselves, among other things, to medical experiments rather than fight.

Addressing that is the purpose of a popular course at Renaissance High School in Santa Paula, Calif., between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. In the class, "Solutions to Violence," Candalario studied Gandhi and King and other peace leaders. And she learned how to apply principles of nonviolence in her own life.


"Before, I would confront people a lot," Candalario said. "Now, I know that you don't have to fight. You can just ignore them; who cares what they think?"

Taught by Leah Wells, a peace activist and education coordinator for the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the class is funded by a federal grant from the 21st Century Community Learning Center.

Renaissance, Santa Paula's continuation high school, serves students who fell behind or had behavioral problems at the town's mainstream campus.

The semester-long elective class, which meets twice a week, has resulted in "a big difference in the students," said former Principal Fernando Rivera, who recently moved to another assignment in Santa Paula. "They seem to have a different perspective on things, and we have had fewer fights on campus."

That is the driving idea behind peace education, which is taught in a smattering of public high schools and about 70 universities nationwide.

The movement is "in its infancy," said Colman McCarthy, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Teaching Peace.

McCarthy, who trained Wells, said peace educators often are the target of attacks from "right-wingers saying you are a commie pinko" or from faculty members who "think you're in there propagandizing the kids."

"Some see it as ideology, as though the study of peace is promoted only by the left," said McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist who teaches the course - as a volunteer - at high schools and juvenile detention centers in Washington, D.C.


But he insists: "Peace education is not the left wing nor the right wing; it's the whole bird." It's about finding solutions to all types of violence, McCarthy said, including domestic, environmental, military, economic, and violence toward animals.

Wells, 26, is an activist who visited Iraq three times in the past two years in an effort to raise awareness about the damage from United Nations sanctions there. Her most recent trip was in February, weeks before U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq.

Her students knew what she had done, and it was no secret that she opposed the war.

But several students strongly supported the invasion, creating fodder for lively class debates. Wells said she never used the class as a personal soapbox, and students said they never thought she was preaching.

"I can't spout my beliefs," Wells said. "If I did that, I'd be just as bad as anyone spouting their beliefs. I'm empowering them to be critical thinkers."

Still, many school boards shy away from peace classes.


"It is a controversial topic for school districts," said Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools. "With pressure for more accountability in reading, math, science and history, few have time to divert their energy to something controversial."

Despite Ventura County's generally conservative leanings, Weis said he had not heard complaints about Wells' class. That is probably because she is "careful about not crossing the line" into proselytizing, he said.

In Santa Paula, a working-class town that has suffered from gang violence, most students, teachers and parents welcome attention to nonviolence.

Students talk about the difference between "hot violence" and "cold violence," and "good trouble" and "bad trouble" - all part of Wells' curriculum.

An example of hot violence would be a fistfight; poverty is a form of cold violence, students explained. An example of bad trouble would be stealing, they said, while you could get in "good trouble" by turning in a friend who was using drugs.

Student Michael Llamas, 18, said the class changed his perspective on the world, and got him thinking about things that otherwise never would have crossed his mind.


"People aren't familiar with peace, but they are familiar with violence," Llamas said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.