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February 18, 2003

Mrs. Ridge promotes survey on sex, drugs
By George Archibald

A Fairfax County schools survey that asks teens if they perform oral sex, use drugs or ever have considered suicide is part of a national grant-harvesting program promoted by Michele Ridge, wife of President Bush's director of homeland security.
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Mrs. Ridge is the hired national spokeswoman for Communities That Care (CTC), which developed the youth survey used in more than 400 communities nationwide to collect personal information from students to help local governments justify federal and foundation grant applications, said Michael G. Bete, president of Channing Bete Co., a Massachusetts firm that devised the data-gathering program.
Millions of dollars worth of grants gained through CTC fund community programs that fight drug abuse, delinquency and sexual diseases, he said.
"We collect primary data from students self-reporting" about drug use, sexual activity and family matters, Mr. Bete said in an interview. "Based on their own unique data, we help communities develop a prevention plan that leads them to choose proven and existing programs" to reduce youth delinquency and anti-social behavior.
A public outcry over the 169-question school survey to be administered to Fairfax County sophomores and seniors in April erupted last month, after parents objected to its explicit sexual questions.
The county's 15- to 18-year-old high school students will be asked: "How old were you when you first had sex?" "Have you ever had oral sex?" "The last time you had sexual intercourse, what one method did you or your partner use to prevent pregnancy?"
Parents objected to the survey as an invasion of privacy. The federal Family Privacy Protection Act of 1996 requires schools using federal funds to get written parental consent before administering any survey or test to anyone younger than 18 involving issues of sexuality, personal health, family matters, and political views or affiliations.
Fairfax County Attorney David Bobzien ruled last week that no federal funds are involved in the survey and that it is a local initiative not requiring informed parental consent.
Students are not required to participate in the survey and can "opt out," he said.
The county School Board voted Thursday 8-4 along party lines Democrats favoring and Republicans opposing to allow the survey to be administered.
Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the pro-family Eagle Forum in Clayton, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, says "nosey questionnaires" in schools, which members of her group have fought for almost 20 years, are "a total fraud."
Mrs. Schlafly said the surveys have done nothing to stop the increase of drug use, sexual permissiveness and violence among youths.
"We already know there's a drug problem. All you have to do is turn on the TV," she said in an interview. "Whether it's 55 percent or 58 percent makes no difference."
Mrs. Schlafly called the surveys "completely unreliable. A lot of the kids think it's a big joke and they give phony answers." Similar school surveys produced by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Michigan and a private company called Search Institute in Minneapolis have outraged parents in many states with explicit personal questions, she said.
"The suicide questions are most devastating: 'Tell us all the things that would make you want to kill yourself.' Isn't that an awful thing to ask a child?" she said.
Parents in Ridgewood, N.J., have a pending federal lawsuit against a 156-question Search Institute survey called "Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors," which asked students to disclose how many times they had used LSD in the past 12 months, "stolen something from a store" or "damaged property just for fun."
The New Jersey Legislature responded to the lawsuit last year by passing a Protection of Pupil Rights Act, which required schools to obtain informed written parental consent before giving students surveys or tests that asked about sexual, family, medical, financial or political information.
Nonetheless, the Ridgewood plaintiffs last month filed a second lawsuit against their public school district after a 55-question survey was given to seventh- and eighth-grade students, asking about alcohol and illegal drug use, sexual activity and anti-social behavior. The lawsuit charges that students at George Washington Middle School were made to write their names on the survey and submit it for class credit, without prior parental knowledge or consent.
Mr. Bete said CTC surveys are "strictly anonymous" and that no results are reported back "of any subgroups less than 50" to assure anonymity.
He said it is necessary for community schools, on behalf of social service, health and law-enforcement agencies, to collect firsthand views of teens about their sexual attitudes and behavior; the availability of drugs and firearms; problem behavior among students; their parents' attitudes and family history of problem behavior and conflicts.
"Communities are tackling problems that are truly there and existing [rather than] run the risk of being an ostrich and not tackling them," he said. Survey results allow community leaders to "look at protective factors and risk factors" and develop "a focused, long-range community action plan for building on existing resources [to develop] healthy beliefs, clear standards, and healthy behaviors" for children and youths.
The company helps clients file applications for scores of grant programs in the federal departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Education, and private foundations, he said. "A grant application will be easier to write and will be much more compelling because they've done their homework," Mr. Bete said.
The company's Web site says local agencies in Fremont, Colo., "generated $2.4 million in new funding as a direct result of their CTC strategic plan." New York state's program to reduce marijuana and other drug use by 12- to 17-year-olds has generated $3 million in state funds and $700,000 in federal funds for 14 communities with the CTC plan, said the promotional packet.
The program brought a $349,000 federal grant for the DeKalb County, Ga., juvenile court and $1.1 million from the Department of Labor for the county's youth offender program.
Mrs. Ridge and her husband, former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, now director of the newly formed federal Department of Homeland Security, "became believers in Communities That Care back in their tenure" in Harrisburg as governor and first lady, Mr. Bete said. "They installed it in 120 different communities in Pennsylvania alone."
The South Deerfield, Mass., company's publications promote sexual abstinence for teens, warning: "It's your life on the line. Every hour, two people under 20 get HIV ... just in the U.S."
Mrs. Ridge praises the Channing Bete program as "a perfect platform for allowing communities to come together in an objective, scientific way without finger-pointing. It's a truly bipartisan, apolitical process that results in better, healthier communities that help children grow up with more hope, more opportunity, and better outcomes."
Mrs. Ridge did not respond to interview requests, and the Channing Bete Co. could not describe how she might use her influence with the Bush administration to obtain federal grants for local government agencies enrolled in the CTC program.
Mrs. Ridge is pictured prominently and quoted in the company's promotional literature. The CTC program was developed by two University of Washington social development professors, who conducted a $1 million survey of 9,000 Seattle middle and high school students in 2000.
The Seattle Times said the survey concluded that youth "risk factors include uninvolved parents who don't stress the importance of school; don't enforce rules; and don't know where and with whom their kids are hanging out."
Channing Bete bought rights to the program in 2000 and hired Mrs. Ridge as national spokeswoman. In April, first lady Laura Bush publicly honored Mrs. Ridge in Hershey, Pa., for her youth nonviolence efforts. The following month, Mr. Bush appointed Mrs. Ridge to the board of directors of the federal Student Loan Marketing Association.

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