Parents Must Assert Rights Over School Authorities

“How often does your 6th-grade daughter have oral sex?”

If the question offends you, then talk to the school officials at Shrewsbury, Mass. But don’t expect a sympathetic response.

When Mark Fisher protested quizzing his 12-year-old daughter about oral sex (among other topics), the school authorities asserted their right to gather such information without his consent.

The questionnaire is not limited to Massachusetts; it is nationwide. And the ‘problem’ is not the gathering of information but the denial of parental rights and reasonable concerns.

The Shrewsbury questionnaire is part of The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) that was established in 1990 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to monitor youth behaviors that influence health.

The CDC website offers a 22-page version of the YRBS, which consists of 87 questions. Seven questions address sexual behavior. For example, the posted questionnaire asks, “How old were you when you had sexual intercourse for the first time?” And, was a condom used?

Past this point, the facts become confused. For one thing, there is no mention of oral sex on the CDC site. Nevertheless, each school district selected to participate in the YRBS is able to add or subtract questions.

Given that Shrewsbury has refused to release its version of the questionnaire, parents quite reasonably suspect the worst. Without disclosure of the survey to parents or the public, Fisher’s claim that students are asked to identify themselves as heterosexual, gay or bisexual stands.

For another thing, the national YRBS claims to report upon student in the 9th through 12th grades. Fisher’s daughter is in the 6th grade, where students are typically 11 or 12 years old. However, other reports – from Planned Parenthood, for example – tend to confirm that 6th graders are being surveyed. In Shrewsbury students in grades 6, 8, 9 and 11 took part.

Without parental oversight and with school authorities unwilling to disclose questionnaires, no one really knows what information is being gathered.

Or rather, from the posted form, some things are clear. School authorities wish to know if parents have committed an illegal action.

Question 10: “During the past 30 days, how many times did you ride in a car or other vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol?”

Authorities also wish to know if your child has committed an illegal act.

Question 45: “How old were you when you tried marijuana for the first time?”

The posted form admonishes, “DO NOT write your name on this survey. The answers you give will be kept private.” But government information is notoriously non-private and teachers are easily able to identify respondents.

Moreover, confidentiality tends to erode easily when issues of child endangerment and criminal conduct are raised. (Does anyone believe that a child who circles “6 or more times” for Question 14 – “During the past 30 days, on how many days did you carry a weapon such as a gun, knife, or club on school property?” – will not have his or her file tagged?)

Nevertheless, the crux of the matter is not whether information on 11-year-olds will be kept private. It is: Does the government have a right to side-step parental consent and collect such information about children of any age without parental permission? (By “such information” I mean highly personal data and/or data that could possibly lead to criminal prosecution.)

That is what Fisher is demanding of the Massachusetts’ Department of Education: active parental involvement. At this point, state law requires parents to explicitly exempt their children from programs involving sexuality. Fisher is fighting for a bill that requires parental permission before children are included.

Explicit permission is particularly important in situations where parents seem to be – in Fisher’s words – “kept in the dark.”

School committee President Deborah Peeples reportedly explained that parents are permitted to view the survey but they are not allowed to take a copy home. Why? “It might be misinterpreted or misunderstood or they could use it to direct their children’s responses,” Peeples said.

In short, parents might discuss the sexual (and other) topics with their children.

Clearly, the school does not think such discussion is appropriate; conversation about the sexual survey is not appropriate between parent and children but should remain between government and child.

What can concerned parents do?

My immediate solution is to remove your child from the public school system and homeschool, if possible. (The long-term solution is to privatize education.)

If you are unable to do so, then you should aggressively demand to see every survey and government form your child is filling out. YRBSS is a nationwide survey, conducted every two years. These and other forms may follow your child for the rest of his or her life.

Do not believe that authorities, under the promise of privacy, will take no note if your child confesses to experimenting with drugs – Questions 44 to 56. Tell your children to never incriminate themselves.

Do not willingly give your money to schools that deny parental rights. On June 9, Shrewsbury voters overwhelmingly defeated a $1.5 million tax increase that would have boosted finances to school programs. Although school funding measures are almost always defeated for financial reasons, use the occasion of a vote to voice your discontent.

What happens to your children matters. Be nosy about the forms they fill out; demand to review the information officials want; when in doubt, refuse permission; know the content of school programs.

Be a nuisance. Be bossy. Be a genuine pain in the tuckus. In short, be a parent. That’s what your child needs.

June 23, 2005