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Education Reporter

Judge Allows East Stroudsburg Lawsuit to Proceed
But genital exams remain part of the 'medicalization' of the public schools
Concerned citizens protest the visual gential exams given to kindergarten children in Aiken, SC.
Concerned citizens protest the visual gential exams given to kindergarten children in Aiken, SC.
HARRISBURG, PA - A federal judge has ruled that the civil lawsuit filed by the parents of seven Pennsylvania schoolgirls who received genital exams in 1996 can move forward. The judge ruled, however, that the families may not seek punitive damages. The case is expected to come before a jury next April.

The court action was the result of physical examinations given to 59 6th-grade girls in March of 1996 at the J.T. Lambert Intermediate School in East Stroudsburg, PA, which included internal examination of genitalia without parental knowledge or consent (See Education Reporter, June 1996). The students' requests to call their parents or opt out of the exams were denied. In May of 1996, the family of one of the girls filed suit and was later joined by other outraged parents.

The East Stroudsburg case created a public controversy over the issue of conducting genital exams and other health care procedures in the public schools. The Sept. 7, 1998 edition of the Washington Times quoted a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Nurses as saying that millions of school physicals, some of which include genital exams, are being performed on school children every year. To her knowledge, the East Stroudsburg lawsuit was the first legal action taken against such exams.

Since the controversy began, reports of similar exams in other states have surfaced. In Aiken, SC, kindergarten children were given visual genital inspections by school nurses without parental knowledge (See Education Reporter, April 1998). Former candidate for South Carolina state school superintendent Rebekah Sutherland says that, when the story broke in March of 1997, many parents came forward to complain. "They told me that the consent form for the exam had been buried among numerous other kindergarten registration forms, and that they unknowingly signed it while being rushed through the registration process."

A total of 56 South Carolina school districts conducted the exams. The Aiken school district now claims that they are no longer being performed, but Sutherland and others remain skeptical.

Concerned citizens worry about the continued trampling of parental rights by governmental institutions. They question the government's authority to introduce medical procedures in the schools that have previously been conducted in physician's offices under parental scrutiny. State Rep. Sam Rohrer (R-PA) says that Title I and Medicaid are the vehicles through which government is restructuring public schools to become health care providers.

"The federal statute known as Title I has been around since 1965," Rep. Rohrer explains. "It was established to provide funding for 'extra' educational services for poor children. Title I has been reauthorized to incorporate the objectives of Goals 2000, specifically, the first of the eight National Education Goals which states: 'By the year 2000, all children in America will start school ready to learn.' " Rohrer adds that schools receiving Title I funds must comply with the mandates of Goals 2000, "whether or not they receive money under Goals 2000." Through "school-wide programs," students can now be labeled "educationally deprived," which allows them to be eligible for Title I funds.

The Medicaid program has been similarly expanded. Poverty guidelines have been dropped altogether in some states for children in certain age groups, and drastically altered in others. Terms such as "disability" have been redefined to include the inevitable stresses of growing up, and the end result is that almost any child can be "identified" as needing some sort of remediation under Title I, with medical services covered by Medicaid.

Marie Smith, an education researcher and school board member in Missouri, says that the Medicaid-funded Early Periodic Screening and Diagnostic Testing (EPSDT) program for school children covers unclothed physical exams including genitals. "Schools are reimbursed by Medicaid for performing such services, " says Smith, "and these types of initiatives precipitated the East Stroudsburg case."

She cautions that it's important for parents to understand the "expanded" meaning of many of the terms used in health and education program documents, including consent forms. "The importance of reading these forms carefully cannot be overstated," Smith warns. "Terms such as 'abuse,' 'prevention,' 'intervention,' and 'anticipatory guidance' should send up red flags as to their relationship to sex education, family planning services and supplies, or referrals for such services."

The genital exams given to the kindergartners in Aiken, SC, were funded by Title I and Medicaid programs. Documents show that the Aiken County School District signed a contract with the South Carolina Dept. of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to provide in-school health services to Title I schools.

"However," says Rebekah Sutherland, "non-Medicaid children also attend those schools and were given the exams, even though their parents pay for their medical care." She points out that parents are not aware of a difference between the public schools - that some are eligible for Title I funds while others are not - and that this distinction causes confusion and distrust.

In August, Sutherland and the South Carolina Council of Conservative Citizens held a protest march in Aiken to criticize the examinations of the 5- and 6-year-olds. A local pastor, the Rev. Dr. Bobby Eubanks, summed up the feelings of the marchers. "Taking our children's clothes off and examining their genitalia is not the responsibility of the schools. They are there to educate."

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