Tuesday, December 5, 2006
U.S. High Court Declines to Hear Parents’ Challenge to Sex Survey
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined to take up a challenge to a school psychological survey which asked Palmdale first, third and fifth graders about sexual feelings.
The justices, without comment, denied a petition by parents in the district who wanted the high court to review a November 2005 ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the survey did not violate their parents’ due process or privacy rights.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, said parents have “no fundamental right…to be the exclusive provider of information regarding sexual matters to their children, either independent of their right to direct the upbringing and education of their children or encompassed by it.”
Neither, he said, did the Palmdale parents have any “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.”
The parents sued after learning from their children that a volunteer mental health counselor had given them a survey asking how frequently they had thoughts about such topics as having sex, touching their own “private parts” or those of others, and distrusting people who might want sex from them. The ten questions relating to sex were part of a 54-question survey instrument produced by Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.
The instrument asked the children to rate each activity described on a scale from “never” to “almost all the time.”
Other questions addressed feelings of anger and aggression, thoughts about suicide and violence, and related behaviors. The volunteer who administered the survey was a graduate psychology student.
Parental permission had been obtained for the children to participate in the survey, which was described as intended to “identify internal behaviors such as anxiety and depression and external behaviors such as aggression and verbal abuse” as part of a “district wide intervention program to help children reduce these barriers to learning.” The letter seeking permission did not explain that survey questions on sexual topics would be included.
The district dropped the survey in 2002 amid complaints from parents, but several parents sued anyway.
No Constitutional Right
Reinhardt said U.S. District Judge James V. Selna of the Central District of California properly dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim.
“We note at the outset that it is not our role to rule on the wisdom of the School District’s actions. That is a matter that must be decided in other fora. The question before us is simply whether the parents have a constitutional right to exclusive control over the introduction and flow of sexual information to their children.”
The parents, Reinhardt said, conceded that no court has ever found such a right to be fundamental.
The judge noted a “number of cases that have upheld the constitutionality of school programs that educate children in sexuality and health,” including Brown v. Hot, Sexy & Safer Prods., Inc., 68 F.3d 525 (1st Cir. 1995), which rejected a challenge to a compulsory high school sex education assembly program.
While the U.S. Supreme Court in Meyer v. Nebraska 262 U.S. 390 (1923), and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), upheld the right of parents to choose to have their children educated privately, Reinhardt said, neither of those cases “provides support for the view that parents have a right to prevent a school from providing any kind of information — sexual or otherwise — to its students.”
While parents have a legitimate concern about how the public schools handle matters of sexuality, the judge elaborated, “there is no constitutional reason to distinguish that concern from any of the countless moral, religious, or philosophical objections that parents might have to other decisions of the School District.”
In a footnote, Reinhardt pointed out that the parents had not asserted that either their rights or their children’s were violated “because the children were compelled to disclose personal or sensitive information.”
Reinhardt’s opinion was joined by Senior Judge Donald P. Lay of the Eighth Circuit, sitting by designation, and Judge Sidney R. Thomas.
The case is Fields v. Palmdale School District, 06-300.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company