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Votes

Sex Questions To Stay In Survey

After party-line vote, board approves questions.

By the end of this school year, Fairfax County adults will get a glimpse of their teen-age children's sexual activity.

They will see figures on contraceptive use, the frequency of sexual activity and the use of drugs or alcohol among 10th and 12th graders, thanks to a survey approved by the Board of Supervisors on Monday.

Although the survey will be administered to 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th graders, only the 10th and 12th graders will have the opportunity to answer the questions on sexual activity.

THE VOTE WAS SPLIT on party lines with the Republican members of the Board supporting a failed motion to defer discussion of the survey until April when the county debates its budget for the next fiscal year. Another motion to delay the board's decision until the end of February also failed despite receiving support from Supervisors Gerald Hyland (D-Mt Vernon) and Dana Kauffman (D-Lee).

Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville), who made the first motion, said the delay was to ascertain whether the survey represented the best use of county funds.

"There are more pressing board issues than this to do," he said. The survey is expected to cost about $60,000 to administer.

Mendelsohn also said asking such explicit questions about sex could cause some students to give false information or could alienate students who aren't sexually active.

"I support the basic survey but I think we've gone too far with these questions," he said.

The survey also asks students about drug and alcohol use, violent behavior and their views towards suicide.

"Kids do a good job," said Board Chairman Katherine Hanley (D-At Large). "They seem to tell the truth." Survey analysts use a variety of methods to screen out surveys that are filled out incorrectly or untruthfully.

Mary Shaughnessy, the director of student services for the Fairfax County Public Schools said that a comparable 2001 survey with no questions on sexual activity helped the county shape programs to deal with alcohol and drug abuse and violence among high school students.

"We also strengthened the family life and education curriculum," she said.

The 2001 survey found that tobacco and drug use was slightly lower in Fairfax County than the national average but that alcohol use was slightly higher. Over a third reported having felt depressed or sad for days at a time and nearly 20 percent said they had contemplated suicide. The survey also found that students felt less attached to their neighborhoods and less mobile than the national average.

"We believe that the investment in the survey in 2001 has been enormously successful," said Mark Searle, a board member of the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, which helped administer the survey.

"Anytime there is something negative that concerns us," said Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who opposed the motion to defer the survey. The point of the questions is to help at-risk students, she said. "The only way we can do that is to get the data," she added.

But Supervisor Elaine McConnell (D-Springfield) said questions on sexual activity could give the county a bad reputation.

"We could become known as a problem county," she said, "unless this is under a very controlled situation."

"There are some things that some people think should still be taboo," said Supervisor Gerald Connolly (D-Providence).