James J. Kilpatrick

Let us suppose, to be supposing, that you are the parents of three children who attend Mesquite Elementary School in Palmdale, Calif. In December 2001 you receive a letter from the school. It asks your support in a study of children in the first, third and fifth grades.

Kristi Seymour, working on her master's degree, explains: The goal is to establish a community baseline measure of children's exposure to early trauma (for example, violence). The study will identify internal behaviors such as anxiety and depression and external behaviors such as aggression and verbal abuse.

The study will consist of three 20-minute questionnaires. It will be "100 percent confidential." Parents may refuse to let their children participate. If answering some of the 79 questions would make a child feel "uncomfortable," the research coordinator will help in locating a therapist for psychological help. The letter gave no hint that the children would be required to answer questions of a sexual nature.

All the subject families except one signed up. Miss Seymour subsequently supervised administration of the hour-long questionnaires in January 2002. After they had time to think about it, four families sued the school district for violation of their civil rights. They lost on summary judgments in both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Now they have appealed to the Supreme Court. We will know by mid-November if the high court will take the case.

The questionnaires are of interest. Most of the 79 questions dealt with violence; 10 dealt with sex. Every question had to be answered on a scale of frequency ranging from "never" to "almost all the time." These were among them: How often do you engage in (8) touching your private parts too much, (17) thinking about having sex, (22) thinking about touching other people's private parts, (40) getting scared or upset when you think about sex?

Judge Stephen Reinhardt spoke for a unanimous panel of the 9th Circuit last June. He identified the questionnaire as "part of a survey the Palmdale School District was conducting regarding psychological barriers to learning." He held that the protesting parents have no fundamental right to be the "exclusive" provider of sexual information to their children. (For the record, the plaintiffs had not claimed such a right.)

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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