Ross Olson's Web Site

Social Issues: Letters

Dr. Robert J. Ferrera, Superintendent Minneapolis Public Schools
807 Broadway
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55413-2398

Dear Dr. Ferrera,

I write to express grave concerns about the "Teens Learning and Caring" experimental health curriculum. It appears that you have not been totally informed of the nature of this program or the background of its creators, otherwise you surely would not have risked the reputation of the Minneapolis Public Schools or the future health of its students on such a venture.

Because your secretary told me that you have no available appointments, I am again writing a letter. This is unfortunate since, as you said, face to face discussions are much to be preferred in negotiations. Yet, this does provide a permanent record which can be shared with other interested parties.

The concern I present is not only my own but that of a group of concerned citizens who have met and communicated regarding these matters. Two of this group were present at meetings called for the purpose of planning a new comprehensive health curriculum for MPS.

If you feel you are totally familiar with "Teens Learning and Caring" and simply wish to see the nature of the concerns, please turn to page 6. The lengthy descriptions are intended to document those concerns in their context.

Meetings of March 16 and April 25 were organized by Kathy Anlauf, Health Coordinator for MPS, and described as a chance for "parents, educators, students and community people to discuss their ideas on health education and what youth need to know about health." (Letter from Martha Finne of "Responses Incorporated" to Dr. Albert Schroeder 3/5/90). Kathy Anlauf called for the second meeting with the words, "JUST IMAGINE another day creating plans for a healthier future for Minneapolis youth, their families and their communities." (Letter to participants dated 4/12/90).

Instead of promoting the expected brainstorming and critical thinking, the sessions only served to showcase a pre-existing and ongoing program about which no meaningful discussion was allowed, namely "Teens Learning and Caring" (TLC). According to an article by Martha Finne in the April/May, 1990 issue of the Hennepin County Medical Society Quarterly, pages 20 and 21, this is a project of Responses to End Child Abuse, Inc., of which Ms. Finne is the Acting Executive Director. TLC is co-sponsered by Human Development Industries, Inc., The Minneapolis Public Schools, Hennepin County Chemical Health and the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services. It is being tested with "teen leadership groups".

The goals of TLC are "increasing by 50% the number of youth who demonstrate success in five interdependent factors for adolescent development, specifically: reporting wellness-conscious behaviors and attitudes; using little or no chemical substances through graduation; reporting the highest levels of self esteem and resilience; communicating meaningfully with a parent or other caring adult; performing above local academic standards through graduation."

The method for achieving these goals is a "Positive Imagery Program" developed by Mr. Michael LaBrosse of Human Development Industries, Inc. It is said to be able to "increase the broader abilities of teens to concentrate, relax, conceptualize, manage mental, emotional and physical distress and develop an internal locus of control" and "is based on 30 years of cross disciplinary research and clinical outcomes in medicine, science, athletics and human development." (No references are cited to document this claim.)

It appears that there are 58 students in the pilot project, at South and Southwest High Schools in Minneapolis, and that these will be the "peer educators" for 280 ninth graders in the fall of 1990 as the program enters its second phase.

This all sounds very reasonable on the surface and perhaps explains why you and others in the Minneapolis Public Schools have not been concerned. Yet a look at what went on in the two meetings will begin to paint a very different picture. This material was gathered by Mrs. Janet Heim who attended both sessions as a parent representative and who, for her own use as a member of the committee, took down most of the interactions in shorthand. The information was reviewed by Dr. Albert J. Schroeder who attended the sessions as a representative of the medical community.

On March 16, at the West River Conference Center, the session began with introductions and a report of surveys of students' attitudes towards stress, self-esteem, drug and alcohol use and sex. Next came the centerpiece of the day, entitled "Focus Skills, Stress Management" Mr. Michael LaBrosse stated that a study showed that 67% of persons' immune systems worked better if they were able to capture an image of being unconditionally loved. He then spoke of "diagnosis" as knowing the true nature of things and "disease" as separation from what is natural.

He then turned off the lights, turned on soothing music and asked each person present to assume a comfortable position and close their eyes. He said to let the force of the music become one with them ... concentrate on breathing...shut off the outside world ... use a small diagnostic tool to search out their inner selves -- perhaps a mirror, or a truth pill, or to shrink down to microscopic size and travel throughout their bodies -- turn on their senses -- flick on their switches - look for disease. Then they were instructed to recall a time in their life when they experienced unconditional love ... make it real and present -- smell the same smells -- hear the same sounds ... turn that feeling into a bright light -- a liquid light -- bright fluid color. They were instructed to fill their entire body with that light -- until the light is coming out the pores of the skin ... focus the brightest power of light on their disease. When the lights came on and the music stopped, they were to share their experiences of unconditional love with those at their table.

Mr. LaBrosse then explained that the mind operates off of visual images and does not know the difference between fantasy and reality. To support this, he explained that if he ate a lemon before the group, they would salivate. The exercise just completed, he said, could bring inner peace.

Next came "Future Wheels". Two questions were asked and only positive answers were called out and recorded. The first question was, "What if Minneapolis students taught themselves in health?" The second was, "What if every student was well?" No negative responses were allowed and no discussion of the responses. The next session was called "Focusing on Positive Outcomes". Each participant wrote something positive about each person at their table to see what it felt like to have positive feedback. Under "Calling All Architects" they were to visualize and then build a structure, as tall as possible. They were to draw a picture if they wanted but finally to cooperate in building it out of construction paper and tape. All structures were declared successful although that in which Mrs. Heim had a part collapsed (apparently due to inadequate visualization).

Next, in "Getting Real", the participants were asked to take part in describing a child, at various ages, who was "well" and had full opportunity to live life as long as fate and genetic endowment would allow. Lifestyle issues were not to determine anything nor were environment or bad choices. They went on to focus on what went on in school to produce these well children.

Under "Transition and Commitment" they were instructed to turn on their sensory switches and get back into their inner selves and then look ahead to a task looming ahead of them. They were to use the same energy they had before and picture exactly the way they want the situation to go. They are to make it possible by retaining this visual sensory perception of the success they desire. They were to let the words of the song ("Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now") fill their minds as they dwelled on the image. (I hope none of the students were visualizing their school burning down.) The session ended with the announcement of the second meeting.

I will just hit the high points of the second session of April 25. Kathy Anlauf stated that we need to stop talking about problems and start to talk about solutions, but not traditional ones. We must let go of some of the ways that we teach things ¬- start over and make opportunities. Anything goes. To illustrate this, she spoke of an elementary teacher who bought toy dinosaurs and had the students throw them away as they discarded old ideas.

The High School kids present, mostly students in the pilot program from South High and a few from Southwest with a small delegation from the Urban League, put on skits poking fun at the inept and ineffective teaching of health. They then discussed how this could be improved.

Michael LaBrosse then brought out a paper from the previous session, entitled "What If The Students Were Already Well" and stated that he was impressed with the consensus of the group. He said health education could be a window for these things to occur and we must focus off problems and on possibilities. We have always used the old tools -- linear thinking and logic. The tool of today is the imagination. Applied imagery affects our physiology and emotions. Programs do not change until people change. This means that our perspective must change, the ability to mentally review the truth of how things relate to each other. Mr. LaBrosse quoted a statement that learners will inherit the future, the learned know how to live in a world which already no longer exists. We need to be willing to discard the old game and invent the new.

Doing imagination exercises will make us uncomfortable but will have a strong impact. People noted this at the first session. Education, he stated, is drawing out, not putting in. Engage the imagination, step into the uncomfortable zone. The mind does not know the difference between reality and fantasy and will respond every time. Imagination is a deep direct focus.

The following imaging exercise was followed with lights out and music playing. The comfortable position, the eyes closed, concentrating on breathing deeply, drawing on a bright fluid colored energy which is breathed into the body. Use a diagnostic tool to search out the best in me. I am of value, I matter, feel the comfort and the safety, I do things well. Bring the focus of the energy to those things I do well. These qualities and abilities can be written like rays of the sun shining out from the best in me. Mr. LaBrosse then stressed that it feels comfortable and familiar to focus now and that the best window was through breathing.

Each person was to focus on themselves as a health educator, asked to substitute for four or five weeks. They were to separate from themselves and observe from across the room the best person they know in themselves teaching kids. These exercises were then discussed around the tables. It was mentioned by someone that the most important outcome is change of lifestyle, not grades. Another said that kids need to be encouraged to take positive risks, to try new behaviors.

The ideas were written down by Kathy Anlauf. Two Soviet guests shared how they are using imagery to improve memory and academic performance and were interested in the openness, freedom and wide application of the technique in the USA. Reporters from MacNeil Lehrer were also present.

The remainder of the time focussed on how to change health education into positive notions. There are no "don'ts", no "shouldn'ts", no "beware ofs" or "can't haves". Each person got inside him or herself again and got into an organ and looked at it from the inside out. They were to discover what they would want taught about this organ. They were to get inside the issue they wanted to teach, to make it real, personalize it. They were not to stay linear and not to teach that anything was wrong, but to find something positive to hold on to.

A table with five high school students from the TLC program and Clara De Leon got the topic of sexuality. Their suggestions, combined with some from the whole group were: make it fun with less tension; bring in play like the dance of the condom; show the good side of sexuality, not just the risks and asking is it worth it; role play, changing sex roles of males and females; use weights to feel like you are pregnant -- belly and breasts -- and make the guys as well as girls wear them. They laughed at the movies that show the "bad sides" of sexuality -- update them. Sex is something we shouldn't be scared of; no scare tactics on diseases. Students told how Pat Thayer ridiculed other health teachers' approaches to sex, "Have sex once and you will get AIDS and your dick will fall off or your vagina will rot." Dispel myths about ways to have sex (homosexual sex, only when you are married and only with the man on top). Give us a chance for hands on experience without having to actually have sex. (Here is a ready market for simulators.) Make the message that it is not scary but a natural thing: make it natural and comfortable to buy condoms; teaching about birth control is boring; there is no opportunity to personalize sex education. If you do not want to have sex until you are married or never, fine; if you want to have sex tomorrow, that is fine. Mrs. Heim expressed that abstinence can be expressed as a positive, "self mastery", and saying no to personal pleasure for the good of another can be romantic.

A second topic discussed was drugs which came from a table that had more adults, many of whom were health teachers. They said that it was difficult to define issues. It could be said that some drugs are beneficial. Some kids are risk takers and will try it if you say, "it's dangerous." Mrs. Heim suggested thinking of future goals like college or travel and how drugs or alcohol could ruin them. Then followed a rare negative response to a stated idea. One student said that it would not work because the goals are too far away and the kids would not see how alcohol now would matter. Martha Finne agreed that kids feel this way. Kathy Anlauf encouraged them to think about what they would like in their futures and move toward that. Someone said to teach kids socialization skills without the need for alcohol and drugs. Someone said to teach a healthy attitude about drugs and alcohol, that they are here, they are serving a purpose. Teach how to use them with responsibility. A drug counsellor responded that you need to create a greater purpose for yourself or an alternative way to meet the need. Someone said that American society gives too much importance and glamour to alcohol. In Greece, wine is a casual part of their life. There was expressed the need for peer role models. One student said that the only good parties were keg parties, the only parties the popular kids will go to. He was really taken back by a class leader, an athlete, who went, talked to people, but did not drink.

The meeting ended. The notes from the tables who discussed mental health, STD's, communicable diseases, abuse and the environment and others were collected and are to be discussed at the next session in the fall.

What are the objections to this program? First of all, we are Not objecting to relaxation, to creativity, to new ideas per se or to any student involvement in teaching. All these things have their uses and misuses but they will not be discussed in detail here. Secondly we are not saying that there was nothing good or true among the statements made at the sessions. The point is that this program goes far beyond its advertised purpose. If the wraps were lifted from the public image of "Teens Learning and Caring", so that its methods, underlying philosophy and preliminary results (shown in the attitudes of the students who have taken part) were widely known, it would be seen by a majority of parents and other taxpayers as a harebrained idea. To state that studies show a relationship between feeling loved (or other positive emotions) and improved functioning of the immune system is a million miles from shining fluid light on a disease to make it go away. Visualization is a current fad and like so many fads, it gets billed as the solution for everything.

The program was presented to a group that was advertised as a working committee entrusted with the development of a new comprehensive health curriculum. They were given no scientific support for the program and no track record of its safety and effectiveness. They were not even allowed to critically interact with its concept or design. They were instead asked to participate in a sample exercise, the experience itself apparently seen as sufficient support. They were only allowed to make "positive" comments about a few statements based on the assumptions implicit in the program. Then, these manufactured lists were presented back to the group at the second meeting as a "consensus".

Would you, Dr. Ferrera, spend your time "visualizing" away your budget problems or forming a positive image of repaired facilities and negotiated contracts instead of working and talking to hammer out the details? You may wish to picture a world without critics such as this writer and may take deep breaths before opening your mail every now and then, but would you really expect mental energy to make me dissolve away?

Ah, someone will reply, the problem is a misunderstanding of the nature of the imagery. It is only intended as an adjunct to teaching. Of course there will be knowledge imparted. Imagination only ferrets out better ways to convey it. But is that consistent with the presentation? No, it is not. Witness the plea to move on from linear thinking and logic to imagination, the statement that we must look for solutions but not traditional ones, and that the learned know how to live in a world that already no longer exists and only the learners inherit the future. Combine this with the claim that education is not putting in but drawing out. Finally, participants are told that as they visualize, their minds do not know the difference between fantasy and reality (and will respond to these images as if they were real, presumably). They were charged as they left the first session to retain the visual sensory perception of success in order to make it possible.

Excuse my left brain, but there seems to be a problem here. I am creative. I know the experience of starting with nothing and ending with a story, a poem or a play in finished form. draw on memories and imagine scenerios. I test and polish them for their usefulness or effect. I am not afraid of the imagination. But I also know the difference between fantasy and reality. I work in the real objective world as a Pediatrician. I am aware that some of the benefit my patients feel after a visit in the clinic comes from the positive emotions involved in the interactions. I know that a depressed person can be overwhelmed by an illness they might otherwise have conquered. Yet I would not consider it useful to imagine how my patients could be well if "lifestyle issues don't determine anything, neither does environment or bad choices," as was done in one of the exercises.

Yes, you may say, but that was just an exercise. If so, why was it done? The next exercise was to tell what went on in school to lead to such a well child. Only fate and genetic endowments were allowed to influence outcomes. Maybe it is harder to visualize a higher IQ or imagine away a tornado. The net effect of such a program would be to turn a person inward. They would be creating their own reality and be less interested in the world we have traditionally taught about in school. It would be a "Calvin and Hobbs" universe, a lot of fun and undoubtedly popular with the students (especially in place of a subject as traditionally unpopular as health -- if it could be expanded to algebra, the sky is the limit). Fun, yes, but would it put bread on the table and would it keep the trains on time. Even cartoonists have deadlines.

In addition, the program has anti-rational anti-educational features. There is at least a devaluation if not a rejection of reason and a radical idea of progress in which old ideas do not apply. There is also a definition of education that envisions all knowledge as already present in the individual, only needing to be released. Although that idea has been around for some time and accepted by some otherwise intelligent people, it does not have a reasonable empirical basis and runs contrary to the common theory and practice of education and child rearing.

At best TLC could be described as a waste of time and resources in a day when some students cannot read and add. At worst it may even be dangerous. The program is apparently being pilot tested on Minneapolis school children. Are the parents aware of the full nature of the program? There is legal precedent for the liability of schools if a student injured as a result of faulty teaching received, and permission slips sent to parents have been evaluated with the same standards as those used for medical procedures. A full description must be made and reasonable risks discussed for informed consent to be valid.

How could it be dangerous? A glimpse at the attitudes of the students gives a good idea how. Some of them do not want to hear the down side of sexuality or be "frightened" by talk of diseases. They want it to be presented in a positive manner in which anything is OK. Of course, the TLC goals do not include anything about sexuality (although they do aim for little or no chemical use before graduation). So one could say that the students' attitudes towards sexuality should not be a criteria of success or failure of the program.

Yet sexuality is a major mental and physical health issue for adolescents. The program ought to be concerned about it. If the adults running the program have bought the myth that sex with a condom is fine, then that should be their goal. I suspect that they would not put their names to such a proposal, although you can always visualize away your Chlamydia or Herpes, as practice for imagining yourself invulnerable to AIDS.

What this program does is take the typical adolescent tendency to think of oneself as invulnerable and immortal, that bad things only happen to other people, and give it official sanction. Think positively. Picture what you want and make it happen. Then go and teach 280 ninth graders next year to do the same thing. That this is not limited to sexuality is seen in the attitudes towards alcohol and possibly other drugs. The students did not want to think about how use might interfere with future goals. (Would they allow presentation of the fact that drunk driving is the number one killer of teen aged boys? It is not a positive goal. So certainly they would rather reach inside themselves and picture a great keg party with no accidents and no hangover and homework done while they sleep -¬if they have enough faith.) Another danger is that of psychological consequences.

One member of our group was injured some years ago as a result of a similar technique leading to and "out of body experience" that went awry. She suffered a great deal of distress that was not understood by her physicians and went through counselling for years after. Some might suggest that she was already susceptible to such an occurrence. Yet the technique precipitated it. How do the leaders know that such a thing might not happen in the classroom? How would they be responsible if it did? It is apparently for this sort of reason that the Hatch Act forbids psychologically invasive activities in public schools. This sort of technique should be used by trained and icensed professionals. Mr. LaBrosse, who performed this exercise for the committee, was trained in business and was a Vice President for Urban Development at First Bank. He holds no degree in a medical or psychological field and is not licensed as a counsellor. On at least one occasion, Martha Finne, in presenting his qualifications to a Board Member of Responses, Inc., mentioned that he had worked with two prominent Pediatric researchers in the field of imagery and implied that he had their endorsement. He did work with them, but he does not have their endorsement. Only Mr. LaBrosse can clarify that puzzle.

Still, the main objection is that TLC is basically a frivolous exercise with a dangerous tendency for encouraging uncritical thinking. The committee was asked to uncritically accept it on the basis of intuition and their own experience. The issues discussed could only be addressed with positive statements. Kids could say they did not want to hear things they did not want to hear.

In addition, it will be perceived by a significant minority of citizens as a religious exercise, consistent in every way with New Age thinking in which reality is actually created by the mind. (Notice the "Visualize World Peace" signs? Some New Agers actually believe that if enough people visualize peace, it will come.) The schools have scrupulously avoided anything that smells of establishing religion in dealing with Christmas, Easter and prayer. Schools even get uncomfortable in discussing the wisdom of certain practices (like marriage) because they are associated with religions. Therefore, it would only be fair to avoid actually putting kids through what certainly appears to be a religious exercise. The group for whom I am writing includes representatives of many areas. There are several parents, representatives from several large organizations and interested professionals. We do not all agree on all points but all are concerned about what TLC is doing and even more what it will do if it expands as planned. We have a negative vision, in total defiance of the ground rules. We have shared this information with other parents and citizens and the general reaction has been one of disbelief. People doubt that that such a thing could be really going on. The reaction then generally turns to anger or dismay.

We are convinced that if this information were widely disseminated, it would result in damaging consequences for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Parents would be less likely to support budget increases. Many who already toy with the idea of moving to other school districts for the sake of their children would be pushed in that direction. Some would find ways to pull their children out of the offending classes. Support would grow for a voucher system to allow parents true freedom of choice in the education of their children. Home schooling would grow among those who are able to do so. The families the MPS would tend to lose are the very families that it most desperately needs. You certainly do not need me, but my wife and I have supported the Minneapolis Public Schools for years. Three of our 4 children are still enrolled and one attended in the past. My wife volunteers as a tutor, helper and chauffeur. We were on the list of those who could be contacted by people moving into the area and need guidance on the school system. We have argued with friends who fled to the suburbs and have given high praise to Hale, Field and North High. We gave only faint praise to Folwell, to be perfectly honest (1986 -88).

We represent many others who, if they did not move, would at least leave the cheering section. We have talked with a few representatives of the media but have not allowed them to publicize anything at this point. We are prepared, however, to fully disclose what we know if strong action is not quickly forthcoming. In the past, the issues I have brought to your attention have not been particularly suitable for a media campaign. Although the Star Tribune printed my commentary on teaching chastity/abstinence, the words and concepts are a foreign language. Yet this issue is different. An investigative reporter could find here all the elements for a ratings week expose. Do not underestimate the risk.

We therefore call for a total dismantling of the Teens Learning and Caring project. This should be followed by a careful investigation of the way in which it was allowed access into the Minneapolis Public Schools.

If you have information that you feel is sufficient to change our view, we are willing to talk at nearly any time of the night or day up until June 30, 1990. If there is not clear evidence that these demands are being carried out by June 30, we will release this information to the media. If an appearance of compliance with these demands turns out to be untrue, that information would be even more damaging to your own reputation. I do not wish to be unfriendly and would have been willing to share these concerns on a much more cordial level if circumstances had allowed. Still, if you are as alarmed by the program as we hope you will be, you will find no difficulty in meeting these demands and will even thank us for alerting you.


Ross S. Olson MD

cc Ms. Kathy Anlauf
MPS Board of Education
Responses, Inc. Board of Directors

Dr Ferrera never responded to this letter nor did any member of the School Board. No representative of the media was interested in pursuing it. But when the information was made known to the major source of funding, financial support was withdrawn and the program dwindled and disappeared in a couple of years. A grant had been given by the Hennepin County Medical Society to an organization called "Responses to End Child Abuse" which became the sponsor for Teens Learning and Caring as a program to fight child abuse. The health director who had apparently brought in Dr. LaBrosse, found her job terminated for lack of funding the next year.

Send comments to me at ross{at}

The URL for this document is