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Lesbian-led Group Targets Franciscan University Course on Deviant Behavior

Members of a Facebook group for gay and lesbian alumni of Franciscan University of Steubenville have reported the school to officials responsible for accrediting academic social work programs because of a course that calls homosexuality a "deviant behavior" along with other behaviors such as prostitution, drug use, rape and murder.

National Public Radio is reporting that the trouble surrounds a psychology course entitled, "SWK314 Deviant Behavior". The course description reads, in part: "The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness and drug use. The course focuses on structural conditions in society that potentially play a role in influencing deviant behavior."

When members of the Facebook group discovered the course, they asked the school to change it.

"As a lesbian and as a psychological professional, I found a couple of things offensive," says Elizabeth Vermilyea, who graduated from Franciscan University in 1991 with a psychology degree. Specifically, she objects to including mental health and homosexuality on the same list.

"The state of the art in science on homosexuality is not that it's deviant," says Vermilyea. "The DSM — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — has removed it ... as an illness."

What Vermilyea doesn't mention is that the removal of homosexuality from the DSM has always been controversial with many saying it was a purely political decision rather than one based on science.

In a written statement to NPR, the University responded to the accusations: "Franciscan University follows Catholic Church teaching in regard to homosexuality and treats homosexual persons with 'respect, compassion, and sensitivity' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2358) while holding homosexual acts as 'intrinsically disordered.' "

They go on to clarify that the course description for this class is little more than abbreviated chapter headings from the primary course textbook.

"It is a book used in more than a dozen public universities, and uses the term 'deviant' in the sociological sense, simply meaning different from the norm. We understand that some, not understanding the term or its context, might take offense at the description. Nevertheless, changing standard sociological definitions is beyond the scope of our work."

However, Vermilyea and her group were not satisfied with this explanation and reported it to the group that accredits the University's social work program.

"The fact that homosexuality was identified in the course description as a deviant behavior raises a flag," says Stephen Holloway, director of the office of accreditation at the Council on Social Work Education.

Holloway says there is a diversity requirement that includes sexual orientation in his organization's accrediting standards.

"Understanding diversity and difference and their dynamics in society is critical for social workers to be effective in working with diverse populations," explains Holloway.

Franciscan University agrees and said in their statement that while their course uses secular textbooks that contain the latest research findings, faculty members are required to present the Catholic perspective as well.

"This approach benefits both Franciscan University graduates and the clients they serve. Since students have considered both sides of an argument, they leave here better prepared to assist clients than their counterparts from schools that teach only one perspective."

Officials say the school is reviewing whether the way the course is described should be changed.

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