- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

The Fairfax County [Va.] Board of Supervisors voted yesterday to keep nine questions about teen sexual activity on a survey that will be given to 10th- and 12th-graders this spring, but a significant change will be made to the way the questions are asked.
Students who answer no to the first question "Have you ever had sexual intercourse?" now will be instructed to skip the rest of the questions on sexual conduct.
"It's a partial victory. The most reprehensible part has been corrected," said Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn, Dranesville Republican, who was concerned about forcing teenagers who have abstained from sexual activity to state nine times on a survey that "they didn't do something."
Mr. Mendelsohn proposed that the board postpone the entire 169-question survey until next year to allow time for adjustments, but the board voted 7-3 to stay on schedule and administer the survey in late April.
Students do not sign their names to the survey, and their answers remain anonymous. The survey is not mandatory. Parents also may choose to opt their children out of the survey, although they will not see the survey questions unless they go to a school's guidance office and request a copy.
Mr. Mendelsohn also tried to delay the survey by arguing that it may violate federal law. U.S. Code Title 20, Chapter 31, states that any school survey that asks questions about a student's illegal activities must be approved by the student's parents.
Last year's survey found that 23 percent of 12th-graders had used marijuana in the previous 30 days and that 31 percent had engaged in binge drinking in the previous 30 days. Last year's survey contained no questions about sexual activity.
Supervisor Gerry Hyland of Mount Vernon proposed a monthlong delay to allow County Attorney David Bobzien to study the legality of the survey, but the board voted 5-5, and the measure failed. A majority of six votes was needed to pass the measure.
"The law clearly says that when you do surveys that deal with illegal activities that you need an opt-in rather than an opt-out," Mr. Mendelsohn said. "Now the question is, does that code section apply to this survey?"
Mr. Bobzien will report back on the legality of the survey before the School Board meets on Feb. 13. If the code applies, a parental consent form will have to be given to parents before their children take the survey.
The survey was first given in 2001 to 11,332 students in grades eight, 10 and 12. Most of the questions dealt with "youth risk" behavior, such as alcohol abuse, depression and thoughts of suicide.
Nine questions on sexual behavior were added to the survey to be administered this year, but those questions have come under scrutiny by members of the Board of Supervisors, the School Board and many parents.
There was concern that the questions may cause students who have not had sex to feel out of place, or that students may skew the results by supplying inaccurate answers.
Proponents of the survey have said it is needed to give the county's Department of Health and the school system the data they need to design programs to address youth risk behaviors.
"Young people's lives are at stake," said Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly, Providence Democrat. "We owe it to our community, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, to get the data."
The School Board will have the final say in the matter. On Feb. 13, it will vote on whether to approve the survey.
At-large School Board member Mychele B. Brickner has proposed a motion to postpone the survey until next year to allow for a review of the questions about sexual activity.
Mrs. Brickner said she does not expect to get more than three other members to vote for the motion, which would need a majority of 7 votes out of 12 to pass.
School Board member Stuart D. Gibson of the Hunter Mill School District said he would vote against the motion but that public opinion could play a factor in the vote.
"Two weeks beforehand, I'm not sure it passes, but a lot's going to happen between now and the vote," he said.
"Teens have always had sex," he said. "It's only been within the last 20 to 30 years that it's become deadly. We have an obligation to educate our kids about the risks, and we ought not be shy about gathering the data needed to educate them."

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