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Don’t call it a sex survey. When a nun asks Catholic-school students whether they surf online porn or sounds them out on oral sex, it’s quality control.
In early April, instead of their usual English or religion lesson, 350 Bishop O’Connell students filled out a questionnaire prepared by Sister Regina J. Ryan, assistant principal of academics at Arlington’s Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School.
“I wanted to determine if the students are getting the message of church teaching, or are they absorbed by the culture,” says Ryan.
Local school systems frequently probe students about risky behavior, such as sex and drug use, in order to tailor health-awareness programs. But these surveys don’t always go over well with parents who think that to ask about sex is to condone it. In Fairfax County, parents recently objected to a lengthy survey approved by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors because nine of the more than 100 questions involved sex, including two questions involving oral sex. Last month, the Massachusetts-based company that was to conduct the survey pulled out, concerned that angry Fairfax parents might sue them.
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But sex research faced no such obstacles at Bishop O’Connell, a Catholic school with about 1,470 students. Nearly all of the approximately 35 questions on the survey revolved around sex, according to students who completed the questionnaire. One essay question asked students if they were sexually involved, and if they were, how they felt about the decision. A multiple-choice question asked to what degree students thought oral sex was degrading to women. (Ryan declined to provide a copy of the questionnaire to the Washington City Paper, citing student-privacy concerns.)
Answering the questionnaire was voluntary, but students say nearly everyone in their classes did so anyway. “Honestly, I thought it was big joke,” says one student. “It was anonymous. Still, that information you don’t need to put on a survey.”
Ryan seems to have avoided the controversy that bedeviled Fairfax officials by keeping parents and top brass out of the loop. Bishop O’Connell Principal A.V. Burch knew of the survey beforehand but didn’t see the questionnaire itself, says Linda Shovlain, spokesperson for the Arlington diocese. Timothy McNiff, superintendent of diocesan schools, wasn’t informed at all.
Among parents, only those with freshmen at Bishop O’Connell were notified; Shovlain says she doesn’t know why. “All parents should have been informed before the survey was conducted,” she says, adding that the questionnaire should have been reviewed before it was distributed.
A letter regarding the survey will be distributed soon to parents, Shovlain says. Having since seen the questionnaire, neither Burch nor McNiff has a problem with it, nor have they received any parental complaints about the survey, Shovlain says.
Ryan says that she will be the only one to see the completed questionnaires and that she will destroy them after she’s done with them. The research will be used to help shape the school’s moral curriculum and to satisfy the requirements of her doctoral degree.
Ryan has just completed tallying responses, and she says she is satisfied thus far with what she’s seen. She says students generally responded that sex should be about “love and life,” and that it should happen only within the confines of marriage. “That seems pretty understood,” says Ryan. “How they put that into action, I don’t know.” CP