Story Time

How the bizarre child-abuse investigation of a school counselor became a crusade against troublesome parents -- courtesy of the Colorado Education Association.

Critics of elementary counseling claim that all this attention to childhood feelings and perceptions--also known as "affective education"--robs students of precious time that could be spent learning basic skills. Teach the kid to read and write, the argument goes, and self-esteem will follow. But counselors say it isn't that simple.

"Most of our lifelong behaviors are formed by age ten," says Nancy Perry, executive director of the American School Counselors Association. "We need to deal with emotional problems before cognitive learning can take place, and if we're going to have a positive influence, we really need to reach them at early ages and reinforce what we hope is being taught in the home."

In recent years, much of the uproar over elementary counseling has been directed at a couple of tiresomely cute hand puppets known as Pumsy the Dragon and Duso the Dolphin. Pumsy is used in a storybook program designed to teach children about different ways of evaluating a situation--using, in Pumsy lingo, the mud mind, clear mind or sparkler mind--and how to make good decisions. DUSO (Developing Understanding of Self and Others) uses puppets and a variety of relaxation and role-playing exercises, also known as "guided imagery," to help children develop a positive self-image and gain better communication with their peers.

Perry says that both programs are "valuable tools" for counselors that are "very widely used and very well-researched." But they have also drawn complaints, usually from fervent Christian parents, in school districts in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Indiana and several other states. To the religious right, Pumsy's emphasis on different states of mind and self-reliance ("I am me, and I am enough," says one Pumsy poster) smacks of godlessness and relativism; protesters also claim that DUSO promotes meditation and the conjuring of new-age "spirit guides."

One of the most strident opponents of the feel-good puppetry has been Christian educator Robert Simonds, founder of the California-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, a national advocacy group for conservative parents. Simonds says DUSO has been revised repeatedly over the past two decades and "still has a lot of problems."

"There's some good things in it, too," he says. "But they get into spiritism. It depends on the teacher. We've had teachers go off the deep end and actually hypnotize the kids."

Defenders of the programs, though, say that Simonds's claims are ridiculous. Perry compares the guided imagery of DUSO to the way athletes prepare for a race by visualizing it first. One DUSO kit even offers ways to prevent childhood sexual abuse. "It's a very effective way of helping students face situations in a non-threatening way, to be able to expand their thinking," she says.

"I don't know of any doctor who would say that relaxation isn't a good thing," says Tim Reeder, who coordinates elementary-school counseling for Poudre R-1. Reeder says he's incorporated aspects of DUSO and Pumsy in his counseling and has fielded only a handful of complaints in ten years.

But Reeder adds that he hasn't used either program in recent years, and he doubts that other counselors in the district use them, either--largely because of past controversies. "DUSO is pretty much gone now," he says. "We never said, 'You may not do it.' We said, 'There's a lot of concern about it. A lot of risk about it.'"

How much of that concern may have arisen from the Shepard case isn't clear. In court documents, Shepard admits to having used some elements of DUSO, which he refers to as "a nationally recognized counseling program." But he denies having used guided imagery--despite similar accounts by several students of having gone with him on fantasy trips to Copper Mountain during which children were menaced by alligators or fell into hot lava.

"Five, ten years ago, I guess there was a possibility that there were counselors doing guided imagery, but it would be a very simple kind of thing," says Reeder. "From what I know from my conversations with Jack, he never really did that."

Reeder describes Shepard as "a man of high integrity. I've worked with kids he worked with who transferred over to our school," he says. "They remember him fondly. I can't perceive him doing anything that would be harmful to a kid. I just don't see that in him, and I've worked with the guy a lot."

Shepard's lawsuit gives the impression that the accusations of abuse leveled at him were fabricated by a small core of fanatical Christian parents who were unhappy with the school curriculum, including the use of DUSO. But that scenario has problems. For one thing, parents who weren't involved in the abuse investigation were raising questions about Shepard's counseling techniques months before the investigation began. And while it's true that a few of the parents he sued had been actively protesting the school's curriculum, their focus didn't shift to the counseling program until May 1992--right around the time children began telling stories about trips to Copper Mountain and other games they claimed to have played with Shepard.

According to a deposition given by the school's principal, Ron Maulsby, several parents had expressed concern about Shepard's activities in 1990 and 1991. One questioned Shepard's practice of having students come up with a "power name" for themselves, evidently as part of a self-esteem exercise. Deeming the practice confusing, Maulsby said he asked Shepard to stop using the exercise in the fall of 1990 but discovered the counselor was still using it a year later. (Maulsby declined Westword's request for an interview.)

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