A Santa Paula school offers lessons on alternatives to violence, and teaches about historic activists such as Gandhi and King.
Marisol Candalario learned plenty about the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, 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 conscientious objectors subjected themselves, among other things, to medical experiments rather than fight.
Addressing that educational imbalance is the purpose of a popular course at Renaissance High School in Santa Paula. In the class, “Solutions to Violence,” Candalario studied Gandhi and King and other peace leaders. But she also 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 through 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, and is not without controversy.
McCarthy, who trained Wells, said peace educators often are the target of attacks from “right-wingers saying you are a commie pinko,” or from other 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 same 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.
McCarthy wrote the curriculum and two textbooks used by Wells and others around the country.
Wells, 26, is an activist who visited Iraq three times in the last two years in an effort to raise awareness about the damage United Nations sanctions were doing to the country. 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 such 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 has not heard complaints about Wells’ class. That is 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 the attention to nonviolence.
The curriculum — which includes readings, videos and essay writing — gets rave reviews, as does Wells’ easy, inclusive teaching style. Many students say the course will stand out as their favorite in their school careers.
One day in class, Wells sat on a desk in front of about 15 students. Holding a stuffed ball made to look like a globe, she tossed it back and forth to reluctant students, urging them to share their views.
It was near the end of the war in Iraq, and Wells led a discussion about letters that had been sent by teenagers at an all-girls school in Baghdad to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Some included drawings that included butterflies and doves as well as American characters saying, “We want oil.”
“What did you think?” she asked, lobbing the globe toward 18-year-old Luis Manzo.
“It was neat to hear their perspectives,” Manzo said. He wrote a letter to one of the girls, he said, “to let them know we don’t hate them — just the government does.”
Added Katie La France, 18: “We want them to know we’re kids, just like them.”
Students talked 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.