Do Parents’ Rights End at the Schoolhouse Gate?
by John W. Whitehead
by John W. Whitehead: Renewing
the Patriot Act: Who Will Protect Us From Our Government?
is no fundamental right of parents to be the exclusive provider
of information regarding sexual matters to their children, either
independent of their right to direct the upbringing and education
of their children or encompassed by it. We also hold that parents
have no due process or privacy right to override the determinations
of public schools as to the information to which their children
will be exposed while enrolled as students." ~ Fields v.
Palmdale School District PSD, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
have a right to control the upbringing of their children, especially
when it comes to what their children should be exposed to in terms
of sexual practices and intimate relationships?
goes to the heart of the battle being played out in school districts
and courts across America right now over parental rights and whether
parents essentially forfeit those rights when they send their children
to a public school. On one side of the debate are those who believe,
as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, that "the child is not
the mere creature of the state" and that the right of parents
to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of their
children is a fundamental liberty interest protected by the U.S.
Constitution. On the other side are government officials who not
only believe, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Fields
v. Palmdale School District PSD (2005), that "[s]chools
cannot be expected to accommodate the personal, moral or religious
concerns of every parent," but go so far as to insist that
parents’ rights do "not extend beyond the threshold of the
A recent incident
in Fitchburg, Massachusetts clearly illustrates this growing tension
over whether young people, especially those in the public schools,
are essentially wards of the state, to do with as government officials
deem appropriate, in defiance of the children’s constitutional rights
and those of their parents. On two separate occasions this year,
students at Memorial Middle School (MMS) in Fitchburg were administered
surveys at school asking overtly intimate and sexually suggestive
questions without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
required to complete the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) at school,
a survey which asks questions such as "Have you ever tried
to kill yourself?", "Have you ever sniffed glue, or breathed
the contents of spray cans, or inhaled any paints?", and "With
how many people have you had sexual intercourse?" Older students
were also given the Youth Program Survey (YPS), which asks true/false
questions about a student's beliefs about contraception ("I
feel comfortable talking with any partner I have about using a condom")
and sexual activity ("I have had oral sex at some point in
While the survey
questions are explicit enough in terms of their content, the multiple-choice
answers are actually quite informative – at least, in the sense
that they educate young test-takers about a host of practices and
terms with which they might not actually be familiar and provide
them with suggestions on how to go about acquiring drugs, sex, etc.
This is a not-so-subtle form of indoctrination into behaviors that
no parent would want for their children. For example, the survey
asks: "During your life, how many times have you used heroin
(also called smack, junk, or China White)? ...how many times have
you used methamphetamines (also called speed, crystal, crank, or
ice)? ... how many times have you used ecstasy (also called MDMA)?"
And for those not up on the various prescription drugs, the survey
provides a handy list: "During your life, how many times have
you taken a prescription drug (such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin,
codeine, Adderall, Ritalin, or Xanax) without a doctor's prescription?"
asking how students acquired cigarettes suggested the following
- I did not
smoke cigarettes during the past 30 days
- I bought
them in a store such as a convenience store, supermarket, discount
store, or gas station
- I bought
them from a vending machine
- I gave
someone else money to buy them for me
- I borrowed
(or bummed) them from someone else
- A person
18 years old or older gave them to me
- I took
them from a store or family member
- I got them
some other way
As for sex,
the survey asks, "The last time you had sexual intercourse,
what one method did you or your partner use to prevent pregnancy?"
The responses provided are an education in themselves.
- I have
never had sexual intercourse
- No method
was used to prevent pregnancy
- Birth control
(or any injectable birth control), Nuva Ring (or any birth control
ring), Implanon (or any implant), or any IUD
- Some other
- Not sure
of acquiring written consent from parents, which is required under
federal law, before subjecting students to these invasive surveys,
MMS officials relied on so-called "passive consent," by
which parents are presumed to have given their approval if they
do not return the opt-out form sent home with students. When challenged
by a parent over this passive consent practice, a representative
with the local social services agency administering the survey stated
that the reason the "passive consent" system was adopted
and why the method of obtaining consent would not be changed is
that the agency needs a 98% participation rate in the survey in
order to qualify for future government grants. In other words, recognizing
that the participation rate would be 30% or less if a system requiring
actual written parental consent were employed, test administrators
adopt the fiction that a failure to respond is tantamount to parental
consent in order to achieve the numbers needed to qualify for grant
funding for their activities.
Fitchburg, Mass., is not the only locality using young people as
test subjects for the purpose of mining data and securing government
funding. In fact, as of 2009, the only states that did not
participate at all in the survey were Oregon, Washington and Minnesota.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the
government agency responsible for creating and distributing the
survey, states that the main purpose of the survey is to monitor
"priority health-risk behaviors and the prevalence of obesity
and asthma among youth and young adults."
in at least 45 states, the YRBS test takes approximately 35 minutes
to complete, with questions on everything from how much television
the student watches to thoughts on suicide, sexual activity and
drug use. For example, the 2011 middle school questionnaire includes
such questions as: "Have you ever seriously thought about killing
yourself?" "Have you ever made a plan about killing yourself?"
"Have you ever used marijuana?" "Have you ever used
any form of cocaine, including powder, crack, or freebase?"
"Have you ever had sexual intercourse?" "The last
time you had sexual intercourse, did you or your partner use a condom?"
"Have you ever sniffed glue, or breathed the contents of spray
cans, or inhaled any paints or sprays to get high?" "Have
you ever taken any diet pills, powders, or liquids without a doctor’s
advice to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight?" "Have
you ever vomited or taken laxatives to lose weight or to keep from
1990 by the CDC, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System is
similar to other mental health screening programs that have been
creeping into the classroom since President George W. Bush’s New
Freedom Commission on Mental Health recommended mental health screenings
for all school-aged children, including those in preschool. However,
while the supposed goal is to identify and prevent risky behavior
among young people, many parents are understandably up in arms over
are concerns about how the tests are administered. Health screening
tests like YRBS are often given to students without parental knowledge
or consent. While the CDC insists that local parental permission
procedures are followed prior to administering the test, many school
systems use the passive parental notification procedures, which
assume that parents have given their consent unless they notify
the school of an objection. But passive notification is merely a
surreptitious way to avoid obtaining written parental consent. And
in the end, whether due to the child losing the notification form
or forgetting to give it to the parents, parents are often left
in the dark, unaware that their children are being subjected to
such invasive tests.
manner in which these tests are administered puts them in violation
of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), a federal law
that was intended to protect the rights of parents and students.
PPRA, which covers educational entities that receive federal funds,
applies whenever students are asked to submit to any survey, analysis
or evaluation that seeks private information about the student,
such as political affiliations, sexual activity, illegal activities
or religious beliefs. The PPRA allows parents to inspect their
children’s instructional materials and requires that schools obtain
"written parental consent" before schools engage in such
programs as mental health screening.
of these risk assessment tests insist that they’re aimed at advocating
antidepressant drugs for teenagers. For example, TeenScreen, which
is similar to YRBS in its intent to identify suicidal tendencies
and social disorders, has been labeled by the Alliance for Human
Research Protection as a "duo-drug promotion scam" that
declares "otherwise normal children to be mentally ill."
As a result, an increasing number of children are being medicated
with antidepressants, despite FDA warnings about the increased risk
of suicidal thinking and behavior in children who take them. All
the while, pharmaceutical companies rake in the profits.
questions remain about whether such tests really help students achieve
healthier lifestyles. TeenScreen, for example, has an 84% false-positive
rate. This means that 84% of teens diagnosed as having some sort
of mental health or social disorder are, in fact, perfectly normal
teenagers. Furthermore, although the CDC insists that there is no
danger in asking students highly suggestive questions about sex,
drugs and suicide, most parents prefer to decide the timing and
content of such a sensitive discussion.
teens make positive, healthy and responsible lifestyle choices is
a worthy goal, but it must start with parents within the home. If
the schools are to be part of the process, they must ensure that
parents are fully informed and involved at every step of the way.
In turn, parents should demand that they be notified about mental
health evaluations and that the evaluations not be given unless
they have provided express written permission, which is required
under federal law. Parents should also be provided an advance copy
of the screening questionnaire in order to make an informed decision
about whether they want their child to be screened.
M. Davis, writing for the Harvard Journal of Law & Public
Policy, concludes in his analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s Fields
of a parent to control the upbringing of his child is fundamental.
Though public schools can and do usurp many parental choices,
this right – which encompasses "the inculcation of moral
standards" – vests first in parents. When a child passes
through the public school doors, he does not become a "mere
creature of the state." Judicial interference in public schools
should be minimal because legislatures are primarily charged with
crafting policy; courts, however, should not stand idly by as
public schools violate fundamental rights. As the Supreme Court
declared in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette,
"The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States,
protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures
– Boards of Education not excepted." Although the public
school exerts a high level of control over its students, its control
is not absolute. American constitutional jurisprudence affirms
that this society is not one where children are wholly disconnected
from their parents and educated entirely by the state. If the
Meyer-Pierce parental right is to have any real meaning,
it is to preclude the public school from egregiously usurping
the parental role in matters of the utmost importance.
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The
Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).
© 2011 The Rutherford Institute
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