Challenge Day at O’Fallon Township High School
Challenge Day at O’Fallon Township High School
Written By Laurie Higgins   |   09.03.09

How far the goals and activities of public education have moved since its inception can be seen in a look at Challenge Day–or more accurately Challenge Days–which are scheduled for Aug. 31-Sept. 3 at O’Fallon Township High School (OTHS) in O’Fallon, IL. 

Challenge Day is the brainchild of Rich and Yvonne Dutra-St. John. The program’s goals are as follows:

Challenge Day successfully addresses some common issues seen at most schools during our school programs including cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, homophobia, (emphasis added) hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others….Be challenged to celebrate the diversity of ALL people.

And how do they achieve those goals? They do so through invasive psychological exercises that culminate in a collective state of raw emotion and weeping. Here’s an excerpt from a promotional video about Challenge Day narrated by Leeza Gibbons.

On their website, the Dutra-St. Johns describe Challenge Day:

The Challenge Day program is approximately 6 ½ hours long and takes place during a school day. Challenge Day is most effective when it is implemented on the school campus on a school day during normal school hours. It is critical that teachers understand the value of the program so that they are open to allowing students to take part in the day.

Challenge Day Leaders begin the morning by helping teens step out of their comfort zones through music and games. When the teenagers begin to feel safe in the group, they are then willing to be vulnerable with one another and connect as human beings….Leaders also spend a portion of the morning talking about the healthy expression of emotions, and the negative effects of keeping feelings inside. During the afternoon, participants dive into the issue of social oppression and examine the impact oppression has on their lives and the lives of people around them. By the end of the afternoon, participants have an opportunity to take a stand against oppression, make amends for hurts they have caused each other.
…Adults are needed to increase safety in the room, to be role models, and to help keep an eye out for teens that may benefit from follow-up support.

Schools are shelling out thousands of dollars to replace academic teaching with encounter group/sensitivity training-like exercises.

When asked if it’s okay if parents attend, the Dutra-St. Johns respond, “Not only is it OK, it’s ideal….Parents will not be assigned to the same small groups as their child.”

When asked if Challenge Day “will open a can of worms,” the Dutra-St. Johns respond, “We hope so. Challenge Day is designed to wake people up. . . . In addition to feeling inspired, some students who are dealing with hurts may need additional support. In most cases, we have found school officials are grateful to finally identify and have the opportunity to provide these students with the help they need. We require that your school team have a counselor who is excited to participate in the entire Challenge Day program and is able to provide any necessary follow-up support.”

In an interview, Rich Dutra-St. John shares his views on the necessity of expressing emotions:

But how can dreams be accessed when there are so many unresolved emotions competing for a kid’s attention? To explain this to young people, we use the image of an “emotional balloon.” The balloon demonstrates that feelings don’t just go away — they store in the body and every time you have an unexpressed emotion or you don’t feel safe to express who you are, the balloon gets bigger and bigger until it either leaks with sarcasm, violence, screaming, or it pops.

This is a view with which many disagree, including Christina Hoff Sommers and Dr. Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine. In the book One Nation Under Therapy, they write that over the years “a sizable and compelling body of research demonstrating that the expression of feelings is not a sure pathway to fulfillment. On the contrary, it often leads to unhappiness.”

They further write that:

There are many who believe that therapism in the schools is a benign, constructive influence that comforts children, calming their fears and enhancing their feelings of self-acceptance. The evidence, however, does not bear this out. On the contrary, the therapeutic regime pathologizes healthy young people. It encourages remedial measures for nonexistent vulnerabilities, wastes students’ time and impedes their academic and moral development. American students are, with few exceptions, mentally and emotionally sound; they are resilient.

A 2002 Seattle Times editorial issued a stern warning about Challenge Day in which at that time “nearly 300 Seattle schools” had participated. The editorial entitled “Schools Shouldn’t Endorse Psycho-Fests,” asserted that “encounter-style seminars that leave students emotionally drained should not be part of” public education and that “Schools should not assist in placing children in situations where adults break them down emotionally and, purportedly, rebuild them into better people. Better to leave intensive character building to parents. If parents endorse this therapy, they can arrange it privately for their child.”

When asked by an interviewer if Challenge Day exposes “young people to the notion of a Spiritual Self,” St. John enthusiastically affirms “Yes, and it’s amazing! We tell kids to look inside their hearts, and whatever it is that gives them goose bumps is what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives.”

According to the Challenge Day website, the cost for hosting this event is $3,200 per day, but if the school is farther than two hours from CA, the school must book a minimum of three consecutive days. O’Fallon evidently booked four. And this $12,800 does not appear to include the cost to the District 203 for lunch for the participants and substitute teachers for the teachers who participated in Challenge Day. 

You may wonder how OTHS paid for these workshops. When a parent asked that question, the school social worker who is in charge of the program told her that they were funded through a combination of private grants, state grants, federal grants, and stimulus money. You heard that right–stimulus money. If federal grants, state grants, and stimulus money were used, then every taxpayer has subsidized these dubious workshops.

How many times and in how many ways can new age spirituality and “affective education” be secreted into public education? How much public money are we going to allow to be exploited to promote these ideas? And how much instructional time is going to be diverted to purposes that stand outside the purview of public education?

It would behoove our presumptuous public educators to understand that it is not their job to cultivate every good thing that exists; it is not their job to eradicate every bad thing that exists; and not every means available is legitimate for public educators to use in order to cultivate the good or eliminate the bad. 

Presumptuous activist educators need a huge dose of humility: they need to develop a proper sense of what their roles are in the lives of other people’s children and for what purposes they may legitimately use public money. Public education should not be used to delve into, expose, and manipulate the emotions of teens. Not one more dime of public money or one more minute of instructional time should be used for Challenge Day.

Laurie Higgins
Laurie Higgins became the Illinois Family Institute’s Cultural Affairs Writer in the fall of 2008. Prior to working for the IFI, Laurie worked full-time for eight years in Deerfield High...
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