Unabomber mentions local firm Sylvan Learning takes precautions

September 21, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. earned brief mention in a prominent newspaper this week, but it was not an endorsement company officials needed or wanted.

The references to the Columbia-based tutoring firm are in the unsettling words of a killer -- buried deep in the rambling, 35,000-word manifesto of the man known as Unabomber.

The mysterious writer who rails against technology's effect on modern society says Sylvan's work as well as other educational methods are related to "the assertion of control over the human mind." The writer mentions that Sylvan's national chain of tutoring centers have had "great success" in motivating children to study.

"I guess this means we've become a household name," company President Douglas L. Becker said yesterday.

"This is one endorsement we didn't need to have," he said of the Unabomber's reference to Sylvan, which begins in the 147th paragraph of the text printed by the Washington Post. "The main thing is that it clearly does not seem to indicate any threat."

Mr. Becker said he was contacted several months ago by the FBI, when the bomber sent the text to two national newspapers and promised to stop killing people if his comments were published. FBI spokesmen told him there is no cause for alarm, and company officials volunteered to assist the investigation in any way possible, he said.

Reassurances seem to offer scant comfort, as the nation remains stunned by the Unabomber's unpredictability and wrath. The bomber has killed three people and injured 23 others in 16 mail bombings since 1978.

"We read what he said very carefully. It is impossible to interpret," said Mr. Becker, who hired Kroll Associates, a private security firm, to evaluate company operations and facilities as soon as he heard from the FBI. "You can be sure that it crosses my mind, that to simply know that he's aware of us is an eerie thing."

He does not know how the writer came to know of Sylvan, but its services are widely advertised. The company's franchises and retail centers teach test-preparation courses around the country. It also has 29 centers in public schools in Baltimore, and additional centers in schools in Baltimore County and on the Eastern Shore.

"I think we want to caution people not to make more of it than it is, while we are certainly taking it very seriously," said Vickie Glazar, director of public relations for Sylvan. The company will answer any questions its students and their families may have, and is taking steps to ensure that Sylvan centers are safe, she said.

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