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Group Tries to Block Student Sex Survey : Education: Leader says, ' . . . parents have no idea what they're really consenting to' when they give permission for children to answer RAND questionnaire. He is considering legal action.

April 29, 1993|BERNICE HIRABAYASHI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — A group of angry parents is trying to block RAND Corp. from giving Santa Monica High School students a sexually explicit survey unless the school board provides parents with examples of some of the more graphic questions.

Robert Hamilton, leader of a group of 30 to 40 people who protested the survey at a school board meeting late last week, said he is working with lawyers to seek an injunction to stop the survey and modify the package of information sent to parents requesting consent for their children to participate.

"I respect others' rights to take (the survey)," said Hamilton, a Santa Monica pediatrician. "My main issue at this point is parents have no idea what they're really consenting to."

The protesting parents say the detailed questions on sexual behavior are offensive, particularly those dealing with anal sex among boys.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District takes the position that the consent package gives parents ample opportunity to make an informed choice, said school board President Pam Brady.

The package explains that the survey includes explicit questions about the students' sexual behavior and says that parents wishing to read the survey can do so at RAND. Parents must mail back a consent form with the "yes" section marked, or give consent over the phone in order for their sons or daughters to participate.

"Santa Monica school district is planning to continue with its commitment and go forward with this survey," Brady told those gathered at the school board meeting last Thursday at City Hall.

Hamilton's group has yet to file a lawsuit. The survey will be given to all students who have received parental permission, from ninth to 12th grade, on May 11 during English classes.

The 69-question survey--there is one version for boys and one for girls--is designed primarily to provide a broad look at students' sexual attitudes and practices. It consists of four sections, only one of which contains detailed questions about the student's own sexual behavior. Students may skip this section if they choose. Other portions ask about such things as the student's family, ethnicity, religion and grades. Some questions deal with whether the student has engaged in illegal activity, such as stealing or use of illicit drugs. One section contains questions about the student's knowledge and attitudes about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The survey also asks whom the student goes to for information about sex.

The flap over the survey has attracted plenty of attention. Local media gave considerable coverage to a news conference and protest staged by Hamilton's group before last week's board meeting.

The controversy has been a prime topic on local radio talk shows this week, including Michael Jackson's call-in show on Monday. Concerned parents are flooding district staff and RAND with questions, although according to those supervising the surveys, few are actually showing up to read the survey.

The survey is being administered in the name of educational research. RAND, the Santa Monica-based think tank, is trying to gauge the effectiveness of the high school's aggressive sex education program. In April, 1992, Santa Monica High School became the first high school in Los Angeles County to distribute condoms without requiring parental consent.

The first part of the two-part survey was hastily administered in March, 1992, before the condom policy and an AIDS instruction policy went into effect. May's survey will be similar, but will contain additional questions on condom use.

From the two surveys, researchers hope to determine the change in knowledge, behavior and attitudes toward abstinence, condom use, and activities, sexual and otherwise, which put students at risk of contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

RAND behavioral scientist David Kanouse said the results will help school districts across the nation shape more effective sex education programs.

Kanouse argued against public disclosure to parents of any survey questions on the grounds that it would go against scientific survey methodology and could taint results. Also, he said, focusing on a few lurid questions in a survey that is meant to be taken as a whole would open those questions to the kind of "widespread discussion and debate that creates a circus atmosphere."

Kanouse acknowledged that the questions on sexual behavior may be shocking to some, but he said the questions must be explicit to pinpoint exactly what students are doing.

"A general question about sexual activity . . . can cover a wide range of behavior," he said. "It's only by asking about very specific behaviors and phrasing questions in a way students can understand them that we can get clear answers about what the value and effect of the programs have been."

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