The Fresno Bee recently reported on the results of an anonymous survey of Fresno Unified students about sex education, conducted with the permission of the school district, as part of an investigation into teen pregnancy rates in the Valley.
Now, a conservative law group wants Fresno Unified to discipline staff who allowed The Bee to distribute the survey, demand a retraction from the newspaper, and limit reporters’ access to school campuses.
The Pacific Justice Institute, in an Oct. 25 letter to the district’s trustees and superintendent, said it had been asked by parents and others to assess the legality of the survey, and “our initial review … indicates that FUSD personnel acted illegally” by allowing The Bee to conduct the survey. Matthew McReynolds, the institute’s senior staff attorney, said FUSD could face legal action and loss of federal funding over what he characterized as “misconduct and intrusion.”
Bee reporter Mackenzie Mays sought students’ perspectives on the effectiveness of Fresno Unified’s sex-education program and, in April, was granted permission by the district’s communication staff to distribute the voluntary and confidential survey through FUSD’s Student Advisory Board as well as online for students to complete.
Our initial review
Matthew McReynolds, attorney for the Pacific Justice Institute
While the school board was apprised on three different occasions – twice in April and again in August – about The Bee’s survey process, McReynolds asserted that “FUSD allowed serious violations of both federal and state privacy protection to occur on campus.”
An attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association said Tuesday that Pacific Justice Institute’s actions show an “alarming lack of knowledge about the First Amendment rights of students and the press.”
“In California, reporters have a right to access school grounds, interview students and report those facts. The PJI clearly thinks this should not be the law, but too bad,” said Nikki Moore, the CNPA attorney.
“What they’re really doing is try to chill the activities of the school district, to scare whoever approved this into not doing it again,” she added.
Nearly 160 Fresno Unified high school students took the anonymous, voluntary survey. More than half said they had only “learned a little” about sex in school, and 16 percent said they had learned nothing at all.
The survey and the Oct. 20 story about the results are part of The Bee’s ongoing “Too Young?” series of reports about sex education and teen pregnancy.
“The Bee began working on this series because of the chronic high teen pregnancy rate in the region and reports that sex education wasn’t being taught in Fresno schools in accordance with state law,” said Jim Boren, The Bee’s executive editor. “Instead of looking for solutions to the teen pregnancy problem in Fresno schools, some would rather divert the public’s attention from the issue.”
“The Bee is proud of reporter Mackenzie Mays’ work on this series of stories,” Boren added. “Fresno Unified has been aware of this project from the start and approved of the survey in writing. One of the reasons that Fresno’s teen pregnancy rate is so high is that too many people would rather ignore the problem than confront it directly.”
Mays’ reporting was undertaken in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. In a letter to the district’s trustees, center director Michelle Levander praised The Bee’s and Fresno Unified’s “commitment … to hear directly from teens about what they are and are not learning about sex ed, through a carefully crafted, anonymous survey approved for distribution by the Fresno Unified School District.”
The controversy over the survey, fanned by criticism this summer from Fresno Unified board president Brooke Ashjian, “makes clear that this is a worthy topic for community conversation,” Levander added. “We hope that the passion and concern expressed about the welfare of Fresno’s teens will result in productive discussions and positive results.”
In social media posts, Ashjian first alleged that The Bee did not have permission from the district to conduct the survey. After the district showed that it gave written permission to conduct the survey, Ashjian changed his complaint to focus on parent permission. On Aug. 13, he posted to Facebook to urge people to contact Mays to stop the questionnaire – although the survey had already been circulating for several months – alleging it was illegal.
At an editorial board meeting with The Bee in October, FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson confirmed the district’s approval of the survey and voiced his support for the project.
Ashjian himself has been the target of calls from some in the community for his resignation from the board or his removal as board president after sparking controversy with comments he made to the Bee in a story Aug. 4 that is part of the “Too Young” series; the story is about a state law that mandates lessons on LGBT-inclusive sex education and abortion. Less than two weeks after the story published, Nelson held a press conference to announce efforts by the district to protect students who identify as LGBTQ from harassment.
PJI’s ‘initial review’ of the law and facts here show an alarming lack of knowledge about the First Amendment rights of students and the press.
Nikki Moore, attorney, California Newspaper Publishers Association
In a statement Tuesday, Pacific Justice Institute president Brad Dacus said that state and federal law “require that parents be notified and given an opportunity to object before surveys are given to students that prove their beliefs or practices in areas such as sex, religion, politics or family life.”
“The parents we have heard from were not notified about the survey,” attorney McReynolds said in his letter to Fresno Unified. “Had they been notified, they would have denied permission for their minor children to participate.” Neither McReynolds’ letter nor Dacus’ statement detail how many parents had contacted their organization.
McReynolds’ letter also expresses concern about several students who were quoted by name in the Oct. 20 story “without mentioning whether these minors were interviewed on FUSD sites or whether parental consent was obtained.”
The in-person interviews with students in the story were conducted off-campus and with their parents’ permission.
Moore, the CNPA attorney, said the California Healthy Youth Act deals with school districts’ activities to enact comprehensive sexual health education, HIV prevention education, and assessments. “It is absurd to conflate the attempts to regulate schools with regulations that should apply to the press,” Moore said. “The interests to protect are much different: a state may control the type of information which government teaches. No compelling interest exists to control how the press shall operate in a school zone.”