Do parents have a right to control the upbringing of their children, especially when it comes to what their children should be exposed to in terms of sexual practices and intimate relationships?
That question goes to the heart of the battle being played out in school districts and courts across America right now over parental rights and whether parents essentially forfeit those rights when they send their children to a public school. On one side of the debate are those who believe, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, that "the child is not the mere creature of the state" and that the right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children is a fundamental liberty interest protected by the U.S. Constitution. On the other side are government officials who not only believe, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Fields V. Palmdale School District PSD (2005), that "[s]chools cannot be expected to accommodate the personal, moral, or religious concerns of every parent," but go so far as to insist that parents' rights do "not extend beyond the threshold of the school door."
A recent incident in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, clearly illustrates this growing tension over whether young people, especially those in the public schools, are wards of the state, to do with as government officials deem appropriate, in defiance of the children's constitutional rights and those of their parents. On two separate occasions this year, students at Memorial Middle School in Fitchburg were administered surveys at school asking overtly intimate and sexually suggestive questions without their parents' knowledge or consent. Students were required to complete the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) at school, a survey that asks questions such as "Have you ever tried to kill yourself?", "Have you ever sniffed glue, or breathed the contents of spray cans, or inhaled any paints?", and "With how many people have you had sexual intercourse?" Older students were also given the Youth Program Survey, which asks true/false questions about a student's beliefs about contraception ("I feel comfortable talking with any partner I have about using a condom") and sexual activity ("I have had oral sex at some point in my life").