University of Southern California

The Researcher’s Second Laboratory: Protecting Our Children from Social Surveys in Public Schools in Light of Fields v. Palmdale School District

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Note by Jesse Fu
From Volume 80, Number 3 (March, 2007)

Vanessa Shetler was shocked to learn what her eight-year-old son went through one seemingly ordinary day in his third-grade class.After coming home from school, Ms. Shetler’s son informed his mother that instead of spending the day learning math and reading, he was asked by the school how frequently he thought about having sex or touching other people’s “private parts.” Had these questions been presented as part of a routine sex and health education program for elementary school students, perhaps Ms. Shetler would not have been so upset. These questions, however, were not a part of such a program. Instead, the school, in collaboration with a mental health counselor, distributed a survey containing numerous sexually charged questions to some of its students. The survey asked students how often they thought about washing themselves because they felt dirty inside or if they ever had “sex feelings” in their bodies, for example. What is more, it asked if they ever thought that they touched their own “private parts” too much and if they ever could not stop thinking about sex.

Ms. Shetler was just one out of many parents who became outraged because of the survey and believed that the questions were “putting poison into kids’ minds” because it discussed sex and other subjects that third graders should not be learning about. The survey was not given solely to third graders, however – first and fifth graders were also asked to answer these same questions. The school claimed that the survey was designed to establish a baseline for measuring trauma in children, for the purpose of ascertaining any impediments to the students’ abilities to absorb material in school. Unpersuaded by the school’s rationale, parents claimed that the survey was inappropriate and, in response, filed suit against the school district.

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