- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2000

The fetal pigs swimming in formaldehyde on the shelf above my head filled the tiny biology supply closet with a nauseating odor. I looked back again at the large stack of science workbooks on the desk endless pages of fill-in-the-blank worksheet assignments on any subject except the one the rest of my classmates were studying. Stowing me in the closet during sophomore science class was this Fairfax County school's way of handling students whose parents committed the unforgivable sin: opting their child out of sex education.

Through the tiny window above the door knob, I could see the forbidden film flickering in the adjoining classroom. At age 16, I was incredibly curious: What were my classmates watching childbirth, contraception instructions, or something more scandalous? That window slice was all of the sex-ed I would get from James Madison High School, though, much to my teacher's and classmates' amusement. Every day I was ushered in and out of the closet to the jeers of my peers and amused comments of my teacher. And every day while the students would create mock families, learn to make a budget and watch videos, I filled out pages of unrelated worksheets.

My mother was not the PTA type, but when she was notified that this class would be taking place and could view the proposed curriculum, she went straight to the principal's office. She was the only parent who was concerned about the course, she was told, and they didn't know where the curriculum was. When, after several visits and much persistence, she finally found the curriculum, she was disturbed the school was teaching the value of using contraception, without a mention of abstinence as a choice.

A decade later, parents and children in another school district are once again being told to conform to the school's values for students without choice. In Ridgewood, N.J., students ages 11 to 18 were required to answer questions about their drug use, sexual life and any illegal activity they had been involved in. The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties group, filed suit this month on behalf of three Ridgewood families whose children had to take the 156-question survey which was funded by a $5,000 federal grant.

According to a white paper on the survey put together by one of the parents from the Ridgewood school district, presidents of the Home and School associations who voted on whether the survey should be taken in their schools had concerns as early as April of 1999. The presidents found some questions too objectionable for the younger students, and refused to give their consent. They were assured by Superintendent of Schools Fred Stokely and Board of Education President Sheila Brogan that a waiver would be sent home with the students so parents could opt their children out if they so wished. According to the white paper, that parental consent letter never came.

According to the United States Department of Education, which is investigating whether the Ridgewood school district broke federal law, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment requires that no student be required to take a survey that reveals information concerning among other things, their mental and psychological behavior, sex behavior, illegal conduct or critical appraisals of the family.

Despite required compliance with that law for the federally funded survey, more than 2,000 students were forced to take the survey whether they wanted to or not. Imagine answering the following questions as an 11- or 12-year-old:

"How many times, if any, have you sniffed glue, breathed the contents of aerosol spray cans or inhaled other fumes in order to get high?"

"Think back over the last two weeks. How many times have you had five or more drinks in a row?"

"When you have sex, how often do you and/or your partner use a birth control method such as birth control pills, a condom (rubber), foam, diaphragm, or IUD?"

"How often do you binge eat and then make yourself throw up or use laxatives to get rid of the food you have eaten?"

"Have you ever tried to kill yourself?"

If a student hadn't been ready to do so before the survey, he certainly might be considering suicide after. In a letter to parents about the survey, the superintendent said, "The survey results will provide information to more effectively identify existing community assets and resources available to assist our young to grow in a healthy, caring and responsible way." And a Ridgewood couple in favor of the survey insisted, "We see this survey and its goals as an opportunity for parents to come together to build a better community in which to raise our children."

But it would seem difficult to come up with such assets if the survey questions, like James Madison High's sex-ed curriculum, assume the worst of the child. Imagine the dinner conversation in the home of the child who has never heard of anorexia, or who was asked on the survey how many times they have used the drugs "smack," "horse," "skag," "bennies," "dexies," or "hash" in the last 12 months.

Building a better community cannot happen easily when school leaders usurp the ability of parents and students to have a choice in the way the topics of drugs and sex are handled in schools. And limiting that choice to sex ed or fetal pigs is neither a real choice or an education.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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