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Public Schools and Parents' Rights

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The U.S. Supreme Court this term has turned down three appeals from parents who argued that the public schools interfered with their constitutional right to direct the upbringing of their children.

Newkirk v. Fink

A classroom teacher in the East Lansing, Mich., school district recommended in 1989 that Jason Newkirk see the school counselor because he was having trouble interacting with other children. The 3rd-grade boy's father refused permission for any counseling, but the school allegedly sent Jason to a counselor anyway. The parents alleged that Jason suffered panic attacks and separation-anxiety disorder as a result of psychological tests used in the counseling.

The Newkirks sued the district and the counselor in federal district court, contending that the failure to get their consent for the counseling violated their parental rights. They also alleged that the district violated the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, a federal law that limits psychological testing of students.

A federal district judge rejected both claims and was upheld without comment by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The Supreme Court last Oct. 30 declined to review the case.

Curtis v. School Committee of Falmouth

The Falmouth, Mass., school board adopted in 1991 a policy of making condoms available to students in its junior and senior high schools. They are distributed by the school nurse, who also provides pamphlets about AIDS prevention to students requesting condoms. The district also installed condom vending machines in the restrooms of Falmouth High School.

A group of parents challenged the condom policy in state court, alleging that it violated their federal constitutional rights to direct their children's upbringing and to free exercise of religion.

A state trial court and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled for the school district. Because no student was compelled to accept a condom, the state's highest court said, there was no coercive or compulsory effect on the parents' right to raise their children. They remained free to instruct their children not to request condoms.

"Parents have no right to tailor public school programs to meet their individual religious or moral preferences," the state high court said. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the parents' appeal on Jan. 8.

Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions Inc.

Chelmsford (Mass.) High School conducted a mandatory AIDS-awareness assembly in 1992 that featured a streetwise, comedic approach by Suzanne Landolphi, an outside AIDS educator who worked out of her own firm, Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions.

Parents of two children who attended the assembly sued the Chelmsford district and Ms. Landolphi in federal district court, alleging that the parents were not given the opportunity to pull their children from the assembly as school board policy requires. The suit contended that the assembly burdened their parental rights and right to free exercise of religion. They lost in the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.

"If all parents had a fundamental constitutional right to dictate individually what the schools teach their children, the schools would be forced to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school's choice of subject matter," the appeals court said.

The Supreme Court rejected the parents' appeal on March 4.

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