On the first day of summer gym class, ninth-grader Allyson Moore was given a worksheet that asked such things as who and what influenced her decisions on having sex and drinking beer.
When an embarrassed Allyson brought the worksheet home, her conservative Christian parents were incensed. To them, the episode epitomized a growing encroachment by public schools on family values.
But under a pioneering new school-board policy on "parental rights," Wichita, Kan., schools must obtain written consent from a legal custodian before asking students such questions. "Now we have leverage," says Allyson's mother, Sallie, who won an apology and investigation of the incident.
Across America, parents are joining a backlash by conservative and religious-right groups against what they view as wide-spread government infringements of parental rights.
The push to empower parents has provoked strong opposition from child advocates and educators, who say it comes at the expense of children and schools.
The movement is driven by a fundamental problem: As the negligence of some parents leads schools, child-welfare agencies, and other public institutions to become more deeply involved in child-rearing, competent parents sometimes pay a price.
"Just because there are some lousy parents out there does not mean all of us are bad," says Kansas state representative Darlene Cornfield, a parental-rights activist. "The assumption now is against parents."
Parents complain that without their knowledge or approval schools have given their children counseling, medical check-ups, and contraceptives, or surveyed their children on family relations, drug and alcohol use, sexuality, depression, and suicide. Some parents say schools bar them from reviewing the curriculum for objectionable content.
Parents also charge that child-welfare agencies have seized their children without sufficient cause and made false accusations against the parents. In some extreme cases, children have been injured or killed after the state has placed them in other care outside the home.
Jeannie Pelz of Wichita started a support group called Victims of SRS [the Kansas department of Social and Rehabilitative Services] after her three-year-old granddaughter, Shayleen, died from abuse in an adoptive home last September. The adoptive mother was charged with murder. State officials had rejected efforts by Mrs. Pelz to adopt Shayleen and her brother, despite their mother's support.
"I feel like they're trying to play God," Pelz said of SRS.
Stan and Jackie Wollard describe battling state child-welfare officials who in 1991 mistakenly took overnight custody of their 16-year-old son, Aaron.
"These people have total control over your lives once they get involved," says Mr. Wollard of Parker, Kan. "You are helpless. It's a horrible feeling."
"Clearly, the violation of parental rights has become a systemic problem" as the government takes on responsibilities traditionally carried out by the family, says Greg Erken, executive director of Of the People, an Arlington, Va., group that has lobbied for parental rights since 1994.
To affirm and strengthen parental authority, conservative grass-roots groups are now rallying on several fronts:
*On July 1, a Kansas statute came into force that affirms the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children and allows them more easily to sue government agencies over infringements of that right.
*Ohio approved a parental-rights bill earlier this year, as did Michigan and Oklahoma in 1995 and Utah in 1994.
*A federal Parental Rights and Responsibility Act, introduced in Congress by Rep. Steve Largent (R) of Oklahoma and Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, has undergone hearings and a mark-up in the Senate.
*A voter drive in Colorado is close to gathering the 54,000 signatures required by Aug. 5 to put a parental-rights amendment on the ballot this November for ratification or rejection by statewide vote.
*Twenty-eight states have introduced constitutional amendments on parental rights in the past two years. Still, no state has yet approved the amendment and lawmakers in Kansas, North Dakota, and Virginia have voted it down.
"The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed," reads the model language of the amendments. Taken from a 1925 Supreme Court decision, the wording was proposed by Of the People.
A coalition of dozens of education, children's rights, and pro-choice groups is fighting the legislation. Opponents include the National Education Association (NEA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
What critics charge
Critics say the laws would give parents veto power over school curricula and programs, hinder child-abuse investigations, limit the access of minors to confidential counseling and contraception, and promote suits against school boards and child-welfare agencies.
"This legislation would open to challenge virtually any governmental action or policy involving the health, safety, and welfare of children," stated the American Academy of Pediatrics in a letter to Congress. The law, it warned, would have a "chilling effect" on social workers and would "severely impede" the state's ability to protect abused and neglected children.
Although the legislation explicitly upholds child-abuse laws and regulations, critics argue that much would depend on how broadly courts interpret parental rights.
Some experts, however, suggest that proponents of parents' and children's rights should unite to address a core problem: the incompetence of some parents.
"If all of these organizations could focus on competent parenting, the underlying issues that drive them would abate," says Jack Westman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison who works with abused and neglected children.