YARMOUTH – Public support is growing for a program used in the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District to teach students stress reduction through the concept of mindfulness.
The Calmer Choice initiative is under fire from school committee member Michelle Conover, who believes it is “psychologically dangerous” for adults and potentially unsafe for children.
She also said it has religious overtones that may violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which creates a separation between church and state.
According to the Calmer Choice website, they are “committed to teaching young people how to effectively and safely manage stress and resolve conflict so that they live happy, healthy and successful lives.”
Calmer Choice Executive Director Fiona Jensen said they don’t teach religion and are not affiliated with any religious organization.
Conover has enlisted the California-based National Center for Law and Policy for help, which has sent a letter to the school district demanding Calmer Choice be immediately halted.
The National Center for Law and Policy describes itself as a “legal defense organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the affirmation of life, parental rights, and other civil liberties,” according to its website.
Conover said Calmer Choice was not properly vetted before it was implemented in the D-Y school district.
“The health and safety of children are my main concerns, and these aren’t just my concerns. These are concerns that are articulated in scientific studies, in social science studies,” she said.
Since it was founded, Calmer Choice has been used in 18 different schools across 8 school districts, interacting with 6,000 Cape Cod students.
Jensen insists there are no religious overtones and no attempts to indoctrinate children.
“We go into the schools to teach kids better ways of focusing and reducing their stress. Kids these days are dealing with all kinds of stressors, and our goal really is to give them tools to make healthy choices throughout their lives,” Jensen said.
Jensen said they teach practical skills that can help students to increase inner resilience, manage and reduce the impacts of stress and strengthen their ability to control emotional responses.
“We teach them things like cultivating happiness and kindness, appreciation and gratitude. And we teach them about their brain and their stress response and how their nervous system works,” Jensen said.
But Conover maintains that type of thinking is dangerous.
“What they’re doing with the children has not been found to be scientifically effective, and it has been found to be potentially unsafe for children,” said Conover.
According to Calmer Choice, researchers from Yale University have found positive benefits from the program.
Attorney Dean Broyles, who works for the National Center for Law and Policy and said he represents Conover, said their primary concern is the health and welfare of the children, but they also have concerns about possible violations of the separation of church and state.
“A lot of these social science research studies show that MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) is spiritually and religiously impactful to the practitioners of it. We just believe that school districts should not be picking religious winners and losers,” he said.
Broyles said they would not be opposed to a group like the Catholic Church coming to a school to talk about drug abuse, good ethics and morals, as long as they didn’t promote religion and pray with the students.
But Broyles maintains Calmer Choice is rooted in Buddhism. He said Calmer Choice encourages children to meditate, which is the same as asking students to take part in Christian prayers, which is un-Constitutional.
He said they expect the school district to review the letter and take appropriate action. They would not rule out legal action.
“State schools have no place conducting psychological and spiritual experiments on our children,” he said.
Jensen stressed there is nothing religious or harmful about Calmer Choice. “We’re basically teaching kids how to pay attention with kindness and curiosity, what’s going on in their lives. We’re teaching them ways to focus, ways to better regulate their emotions,” said Jensen.
She said Broyles’ group is the same one that sued a school in California, challenging the teaching of yoga because it had religious overtones.
Jensen said the school district won the case.
She said her organization has received thousands of messages of support since Conover first expressed her concern earlier this week.
The Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School Committee is expected to address the issue at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday night at 6:30 p.m. at the Station Avenue Elementary School.
Jensen said she’ll be there to listen.
By MATT PITTA, CapeCod.com News Director