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Education Reporter

A 'Ridge' of High Pressure 
Nosy Surveys seek schools and funding

Tom Ridge and wife Michele
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge and wife Michele at his swearing-in ceremony as Homeland Security Chief at the White House in January. Mrs. Ridge is promoting the "Communities That Care" youth survey.
SOUTH DEERFIELD, MA - The Channing Bete company announced on Feb. 11 that Michele Ridge, wife of former Pennsylvania Governor and current Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, will become a national spokesperson for Communities that Care (CTC). Claiming to foster "better, healthier communities," CTC features an intrusive 169-question youth survey that asks children about their sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, whether or not they have considered suicide, and other personal matters.

In a press release issued by Channing Bete, Mrs. Ridge stated that "CTC is a perfect platform for allowing communities to come together in an objective, scientific way, without finger pointing. It is truly a bipartisan, apolitical process that results in better, healthier communities that help children grow up with more hope, more opportunity, and better outcomes."

But who decides what is "healthy"? Many parents consider it unhealthy for schools to probe their children for personal and family information that they consider none of the community's business. In New Jersey, two lawsuits are pending against the Ridgewood School District for intrusive questionnaires given in 1999 and 2001. (See Education Reporter, Feb. 2003 and Jan. and Feb. 2002.) These surveys were given without parental consent, and the 1999 survey was administered using federal funds in violation of the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Act (PPRA). One of the surveys (the 156-question Search Institute survey) was given at the behest of the community for the purpose of developing programs to change students' behavior.

The CTC survey is being given to children in grades 6-12 in about 400 communities nationwide to measure "a comprehensive set of risk and protective factors that affect a community's adolescent population . . ." It created controversy recently in Fairfax, Virginia, when it was proposed for the area's 10th and 12th graders. Some parents and at least one member of the County Board of Supervisors objected especially to nine questions about teen sexual activity, including "Have you ever had oral sex?" and "The last time you had sexual intercourse, what one method did you or your partner use to prevent pregnancy?" Fairfax County Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn suggested that the survey be postponed until next year so that adjustments to the survey could be made, but his motion was defeated.

Despite objections, the CTC survey will be given to Fairfax teens in April, although children who answer no to the first of the sex questions - "Have you ever had sexual intercourse?" - will now be instructed to skip the eight subsequent sex questions.

According to the Washington Times (2-18-03), the CTC survey "is part of a national grant-harvesting program" to obtain federal and foundation funds for state and local programs that address the problems uncovered by the survey. Many students, however, admit to falsifying answers to survey questions, making the findings doubtful at best. Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum and a researcher of nosy questionnaires for 20 years, calls the surveys "a fraud." She told the Washington Times that "a lot of the kids think it's a big joke and give phony answers."

The Channing Bete website credits CTC survey results with impacting "positive youth development" and "promoting prevention" of risky behavior. It encourages communities to "build consensus" and "put aside personal and professional differences to address objectively identified community challenges." But does "putting aside personal differences" mean, for example, that parents and citizens who believe in moral absolutes will be ostracized and overruled if they prefer abstinence education to more condom giveaways for students? Does it mean that parents who assert their right to direct the upbringing of their own children will face coercion from the "village"? Does it mean that the "village," i.e., government bureaucrats, pop psychologists, educators, and law enforcement officials, will be deemed more competent than parents to determine the social values our children are to live by?

Channing Bete states that the company's mission is "to strengthen individuals, families, and communities by reinforcing healthy behaviors and commitment to positive social values." Mrs. Ridge, who as Pennsylvania's First Lady oversaw the expansion of CTC to 128 sites in 58 counties in the state, opines that "What is so important about CTC is getting people to work together . . . It becomes imperative for states and local governments to have programming that is science-based and produces results."

But many taxpayers are reluctant to empower the nanny state by pouring still more tax dollars into community "prevention" programs that do not work, and parents question whether intrusive surveys are the appropriate tool for generating data to justify those programs.

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