Questioning the kids

Posted: Sep 28, 2006 12:01 AM

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.)

He also held 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." (To override? Maybe not, but surely parents have political and judicial rights to challenge educators who seek graduate degrees by asking little girls if they think about touching the penises of little boys.)

Judge Reinhardt said the principal question before his court is "simply whether the parents have a constitutional right to exclusive control over the introduction and flow of sexual information to their children." No such specific right, he said, can be found "in the deep roots of the nation's history and tradition or implied in the concept of ordered liberty."(If the plaintiffs in this case ever asserted "a constitutional right" to "exclusive control" over the introduction and flow of sexual information to their children, it surely escaped the attention of this reporter.)

Judge Reinhardt explained what rights parents do not have: "They have no constitutional right to prevent a public school from providing its students with whatever information it wishes to provide, sexual or otherwise, when and as the school determines that it is appropriate to do so. ... Schools cannot be expected to accommodate the personal, moral or religious concerns of every parent."

Judge Reinhardt concluded with a disclaimer: "We do not quarrel with the parents' right to inform and advise their children about the subject of sex as they see fit. ... We conclude only that the parents are possessed of no constitutional right to prevent the public schools from providing information on that subject to their students in any forum or manner they select."

In their petition to the Supreme Court, counsel for the parents say that "the offensive survey shocked and shamed the children and robbed them of their innocence," which may be stretching it. This grandfather suspects that the children of Los Angeles are made of sterner stuff. But even so: Could the grade school children dragooned into this educationist inquisition have better spent their time on the six-times table? You bet.