Fairfax parents object to sexually explicit surveys of students

A group of parents in Fairfax County, Virginia, want the school district to scrap an annual survey that asks about the sexual habits of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders.

Fairfax students have been taking the survey for years, but the intense scrutiny on Northern Virginia public schools in recent months has refocused attention on the sex study.

“If you asked these of adults in the workplace you could get sued,” said Elizabeth Schultz, a former Fairfax County School Board member who said she battled for years to at least have the survey made opt-in for students rather than the current opt-out.

“Why the prurient nature of these?” she said. “It’s utterly anti-family and creepy, and most parents don’t have a clue what is going on.”

The 16-page, 173-question survey — along with a less sexually explicit version given to sixth-graders — was scheduled to be administered this month, according to a county spokesman who insisted his statement be cited anonymously.

The county said all answers are anonymous.

The comprehensive 2021 questionnaire — which students can choose to skip, or opt-out of — wastes no time getting personal.

“Some people describe themselves as transgender when their sex at birth does not match the way they think or feel about their gender,” question No. 4 begins. “Are you transgender?”

Other questions include asking if a possible felony had ever been committed against the student, such as asking if they had ever been forced to have sexual intercourse. And there are questions about oral sex.

“As young as 11-year-olds in Fairfax County Public Schools are being asked ‘How many times have you done … it in the last 3 months?’” wrote Elizabeth McCauley, who referred to herself as a “concerned mother and Fairfax County Taxpayer” in a letter to the editor of The Fairfax County Times this month.

Ms. McCauley said her letter, headlined “Stop sexualizing our children,” was a cry for the county to discontinue a practice it has followed annually since 2009 with the exception of last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“I was absolutely horrified,” Ms. McCauley told The Washington Times. “They are in school to learn, and I was appalled at the questions they wouldn’t even ask adults.”

The survey was designed to help county officials better deal with potentially health-hazardous situations in schools, according to a spokesman.

“The Fairfax County Youth Survey is a voluntary, anonymous and comprehensive survey that examines the risks, protective factors and health behaviors that influence the health and well-being of our county’s youth,” the spokesman said in a statement to The Times.

“The current survey questions were selected from nationally recognized surveys that follow rigorous testing and validation procedures,” he said. “The survey is an important tool to assess youth needs and strengths, develop programs, monitor trends, measure countywide outcomes and guide countywide planning of prevention efforts.”

The latest controversy in Fairfax County comes as parents in school districts around the country have grown alarmed at what they see as an improper and leftist drift in public K-12 education.

Concerned by closings and other COVID-19 health measures they regard as unnecessary and counterproductive, many parents have also pushed back against what they see as an unhelpful emphasis in classrooms on race, gender and sexuality — issues they argue should be outside public schooling’s bailiwick.

Schools in Virginia’s Fairfax and Loudoun counties have been at the center of sometimes raucous debates, and polls show parental frustration with schools was a big factor in Republican Glenn Youngkin’s surprising win in the Virginia governor’s contest earlier this month.

Student surveys similar to the Fairfax County study have seen pushback in other states.

In a Connecticut district around Easton, survey opponents this year managed to switch participation from opt-out to opt-in. The decision was seen as a victory for parents in a district where an ongoing spat between officials emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion and a group known as Save Our Town/Save Our Schools led to the resignation of the superintendent.

It was particularly telling in Connecticut that education professionals wanted to ask students questions they were unwilling to ask faculty members, said Maureen Hanley, a Save Our Town/Save Our Schools member.

“We fought like hell on that to get some of the more sexualized questions removed,” Ms. Hanley said. “And you can tell our friends in Fairfax and other counties that if they don’t fight this with everything they’ve got, then stuff like this will take over their kids’ lives.”

Parts of the Fairfax County questionnaire are straightforward and no parents objected to them, including questions about “how many hours” students spend “on an average school day,” on homework or participating in extracurricular activities. The survey also asks about drug use and attitudes toward cheating.

But those sections are inseparable from the objectionable ones, according to nearly a dozen parents who spoke with The Times.

For example, in a section asking if a student has been “bullied, taunted, ridiculed or teased” by a “parent or adult in your household,” question No. 66 asks, “have you ever been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when you did not want to?”

Meg Kilgannon, a conservative activist and mother of four children who attended Fairfax schools, said she suspects the questions are designed in large part to validate spending on and expansion of government programs.

In that sense, the complaints from some Fairfax County parents differ from other districts, where questions about privately designed and administered surveys have raised flags about firms using children to mine data.

“It’s a justification for more spending,” Ms. Kilgannon said. “Is there any other test they take that is 173 questions long?”

The Fairfax County Health and Human Services Department posts executive summaries and statistical breakdowns of the survey each year. In fact, the surveys have shown a slight reduction in admitted sexual activity by FCPS students in recent years.

Ms. McCauley said the findings are hardly reliable, and that questions that offer answers ranging from “NO!! … no … yes … YES!!” do not provide sound data.

But whatever the value of determining the levels of drug use or drinking or eating disorders among students, neither government officials nor private companies should ask such pointed questions of eighth-graders or high school students, said Priscilla DeStafano.

Ms. DeStefano, a conservative parent who lost her campaign for a Fairfax County School Board seat last year, cited as inappropriate questions like No. 134 (“During your life, with how many people have you had sexual intercourse?”) and No. 135 (“During the past 3 months, with how many people have you had sexual intercourse?”).

“I think it’s so invasive, especially if they are 13 years old,” she said. “How many parents would willingly sign their kids up for a survey like that? It sounds innocuous, but why do the schools need to know that?”