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Take Note: Getting Personal; Fossils

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A woman might expect detailed questions about her pregnancy and her child's infancy at the pediatrician's office.

But not at the schoolhouse door.

For perhaps a decade in the Lancaster Elementary District in Southern California, parents enrolling children for the first time received a questionnaire covering those topics.

That stopped last month.

One parent thought questions asking her age at her child's delivery, how long her labor lasted, what method of delivery was used, and whether she breast-fed her child--and for how long--were too much. District officials agreed and pulled the questionnaire.

"The questions were quite personal and intruded unduly into the privacy of the parents, in our opinion, without any good reason," said Ned McNabb, the director of pupil personnel services in the 13,000-student district north of Los Angeles.

As best as Mr. McNabb can piece together the origin of the questionnaire, someone adapting a physician's medical-screening form years ago for use by the schools simply left those questions in. The controversial dozen questions fell in the middle of a one-page questionnaire titled "Health History."

"I'm sure the intent was very, very well-meaning," Mr. McNabb said. But, in retrospect, he added: "We were just surprised we'd never had a complaint before."

Oops. Last month, a cleaning crew accidentally tossed out a collection of valuable fossils while working at Lindbergh Elementary School in Costa Mesa, Calif.

The school has not been used for classes in about a decade, and the Newport-Mesa district leases the property to the Mesa Consolidated Water District, which put a water reservoir on what was once the playground.

The fossils were unearthed by paleontologists examining the reservoir site and were stored in the school building. More than half of the fossil collection ended up in a landfill, including samples from newly identified species of sea lions and dolphins.

A statement from water-district officials said the fossils had a "priceless value" to scientists and cannot be recovered from the landfill. The fossils had been catalogued and locked away.

But Mac Bernd, the school district superintendent, said, "It was difficult for the workers to see what was identified as sensitive material of any nature."

--Millicent Lawton & Meg Sommerfeld

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