- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

A member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is trying to gather majority support to either remove questions about sexual activity from a larger survey on teen behavior to be distributed to high schoolers, or to eliminate the entire questionnaire.

The survey was administered to 10th- and 12th-graders in the county's public high schools last year, but at that time it didn't contain questions directly related to sexual activity.

Most of the survey deals with "youth risk" behaviors such as alcohol abuse, depression and thoughts of suicide.

This year, however, nine questions specifically related to student sexual activity were inserted into the survey, creating a firestorm of debate not just among parents and students but on CNN's "Talkback Live" program and WTOP's "Ask the Executive," with Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley appearing on the local show.

The new survey is to be administered to students this April.

The controversial questions ask students whether they have had sexual intercourse, when they last had it, with how many people have they had it, whether they used contraception and whether they have engaged in oral sex.

Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn, Dranesville Republican, said he would propose "anything from deleting those questions to rearranging the wording to stopping the funding altogether for the survey."

Mr. Mendelsohn who would need a simple majority of six on the 10-member Board of Supervisors to approve a motion said he is trying to gather support from fellow supervisors.

"There's some that are interested," he said. "It depends on the wording of the motion. I'm going to see what I can do over the next few days by talking to my colleagues."

The School Board approved the survey with the nine sex-related questions and the Board of Supervisors is paying the $60,000 cost of administering it, Mrs. Hanley said.

Students taking the survey fill it out anonymously, according to Mrs. Hanley, and they may opt out if they want. Parents will be notified of the survey, but they will not be given the actual questions. They may sign a form to exclude their children from the survey.

Questions on the survey were submitted by the Youth Survey Work Group appointed by the Board of Supervisors and the School Board. The group comprised school and county staff, as well as parents of high school students and other local people, a government spokesman said. Mary Shaughnessy, director of Student Services, led the work group.

Mr. Mendelsohn said his main objection was that teens who do not engage in sexual activity would have to repeatedly deny any sexual activity.

"I think there should be one question that if you answer no, you skip the rest," he said. "Young people should not have to say nine or 10 times that they didn't do something."

Public officials including Mrs. Hanley have said the survey is needed to determine which "youth risk" behaviors are most prevalent, including sexual activity.

The county's Department of Health and the school system will use the statistics to shape their intervention and education programs, as they did with last year's survey which did not contain questions on sexual activity administered to 11,332 students in grades 8, 10 and 12.

The plan this April is to administer the entire survey, with the sex-related questions, to grades 10 and 12. Grades 6 and 8 would receive the survey minus the sex-related questions.

Kathy Stohr, parent of an 11th-grader at Westfield High School, said she plans to telephone other parents to warn them about the survey.

"I think it's intrusive and it gives kids the wrong idea," Mrs. Stohr said. "It makes it seem like this sexual activity is normal and commonplace."

Lynn Terhar, director of the Fairfax County District of the state PTA, said the PTA had not yet collected enough public opinion on the issue to take an official position. She said, however, that she had sent unofficial e-mail messages to supervisors "urging them to leave the survey intact with the sexual activity questions in it."

"We know high school kids are sexually active," Mrs. Terhar said. "Anybody who doesn't think so is on another planet."

The answers to the survey questions are the kind of data "we need to know about so we know where to put our resources," she said.

Critics question whether high-schoolers would take such questions seriously and provide accurate data, but students who are aware of the issue have said that should not be a concern.

"By the time a student reaches the 10th grade, he or she has the ability to think with a critical mind," said Matt Wansley, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High and the student representative to the School Board.

"The family has primary responsibility to educate their children about moral behavior, but the schools have to approach it from a health standpoint," Matt said.

"I'm more than happy to take it," he said of the survey.

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