- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

   Fairfax County schools have canceled a survey that would have asked, among other things, questions about students’ sexual behavior, because the company contracted to administer it feared it would be sued.
   The 169-question survey was scheduled to be given to 10,000 randomly selected students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 next week. The company wanted the county to release it from liability, but county attorneys said state law would not allow the county to do that.
   “We didn’t have an issue with the content — the handful of sex questions that were added by Fairfax County. We just made a business decision that we couldn’t take a legal risk,” said Daniel Carmody, vice president of Channing Bete, a Massachusetts-based publishing and survey company.
   “The survey is a voluntary survey. But we can’t control if a particular teacher gives students the impression that they have to answer the survey, then a parent gets upset. We can’t assume responsibility for that,” he said. “Fairfax was not able to share responsibility, and we basically came to an impasse.”
   The survey would have been a follow-up to one that was given to students in 2001, which did not ask students about their sexual behavior.
   Channing Bete has not been sued over its “Communities That Care” (CTC) surveys. But three parents in Ridgewood, N.J., have filed two lawsuits against their local school system, saying two different surveys violated their children’s privacy.
   Last year, the New Jersey state legislature responded to one of the lawsuits by passing a Protection of Pupil Rights Act, which requires schools to get written parental consent before administering surveys or tests that ask students about their experiences with sex and about their family, medical, financial or political information.
   Channing Bete supplies the CTC survey to more than 400 communities nationwide.
   Fairfax County added nine questions about sexual behavior, which only would have been asked of 10th and 12th grade students. Results of the survey are increasingly crucial to getting grant money for programs, said Mary Shaughnessy, county student-services director.
   Millions of dollars worth of grants fund community programs that fight drug abuse, delinquency and sexually transmitted diseases. Michele Ridge, the wife of President Bush’s director of Homeland Security, is the national spokeswoman for the CTC program.
   Mrs. Shaughnessy said the questions about sexual behavior were tacked on to the CTC survey because county health and school officials wanted to find out what areas of sex education they needed to improve.
   The questions met resistance on the School Board and on the county Board of Supervisors, which was funding the $60,000 survey.
   The questions would have asked students whether they had engaged in sex, how old they were when they first did so, how many partners they have had, whether drugs and alcohol were involved and whether protection was used. Two questions about oral sex also were included.
   Board of Supervisors member Stuart Mendelsohn, Dranesville Republican, tried to stop the survey last January and have the questions about sex removed. The board voted 7-3 to keep the questions.
   At-large School Board member Mychele B. Brickner wanted the board to reject the questions. But last February, the board voted 8-4 to include them on the survey.
   Mr. Mendelsohn, who is a lawyer, said he was surprised by Channing Bete’s actions. “I didn’t expect the contractor to pull the plug. But did I think there was a risk of a lawsuit? Yes,” he said. “It’s too bad they lost the whole survey over a few questions that, in my opinion, should never have been asked.”
   Mrs. Brickner agreed. “The survey was fine the way it was delivered two years ago. It gave us valuable information. But when we get into this type of questioning, it’s gone too far,” she said.
    Mrs. Shaughnessy said Fairfax County schools are thinking about using a survey conducted by the state. That survey, which would be administered next year, would likely not include questions about sexual behavior.

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