WHO'S THE BOSS?

THE BATTLE LINES ARE FORMING IN THE BREWING POLITICAL SKIRMISH OVER PARENTS' RIGHTS.

John Spearing thinks Colorado needs a parents' rights amendment because of a self-esteem test Pueblo School District No. 70 gave his then-nine-year-old daughter four years ago. The written test, administered to all third-graders in the district at the time, asked children to answer "yes" or "no" to a series of statements: "I am unhappy"; "I sleep well at night"; "My family is disappointed with me." That test, says Spearing, was given to his daughter without his knowledge. Then, in March 1994, after Spearing had just been elected to the school board, the results were passed to the local Department of Social Services and used to bolster child-abuse allegations against him.

To Spearing, now president of the District 70 school board, the test and the way it was handled represent the insidious intrusion of government into the private life of the family. It's a trend the Parental Rights Amendment can stop, he says--if supporters can get it on the ballot in time for the November 1996 election.

Spearing is one of the leading proponents of the ballot initiative, which would amend Colorado's state constitution to give parents an "inalienable right" to "direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children." The language is plain, the message, on its face, hardly objectionable. But not far beneath the surface is a mine field of legal quandaries and religious overtones that have an unlikely consortium of community groups from the Colorado Parent Teacher Association to local obstetricians organizing in opposition.

Despite the seemingly simple purpose of the Parental Rights Amendment, the politics behind it are anything but unsophisticated. The chief organizational muscle in Colorado has come from the Virginia political action committee Of the People, headed by conservative political analyst and anti-abortion activist Jeffrey Bell. Bell's group sought out sponsors for the initiative in Colorado, hired former College Republicans state chairwoman Leah DeLay to head what it calls the Colorado Coalition for Parental Responsibility, and has even aided in fundraising efforts here in the state. Today a core of local support has formed, much of it from Christian home-schoolers and anti-abortion activists who themselves are no strangers to the political process.

The Christian Coalition considers parental rights so essential to religious freedom that it has made the amendment part of its "Contract With the American Family," a religious rights campaign modeled after the Republican "Contract With America." The Coalition and other supporters say the amendment will help parents win back control over their children from increasingly invasive school systems and social welfare agencies by allowing them to sue in state court to stop certain practices and policies. But opponents decry the amendment as "stealth legislation" that could cripple public school systems and open up a Pandora's box of abuses. In fact, the language of the amendment is so vague and so open to judicial interpretation that even groups who have for years championed a reform of child welfare laws, such as VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws) aren't quite sure about the Parental Rights Amendment.

All of which doesn't bother John Spearing one bit. "My daughter was in the third grade and they gave her the Piers-Harris [Children's Self-Concept Scale] test," he says. "They said they weren't going to use it for anything in specific. And then one afternoon in March of 1994 she was becoming a serious behavioral problem. She wouldn't do her homework and I yelled at her, then I picked her up and carried her into another room and put her down."

Though he admits to bodily carrying his daughter from room to room, Spearing says the event was "nothing physical" and sneers, "I didn't know yelling was a form of child abuse." But his daughter had a different interpretation. "She went to school and reported it," Spearing says. "They contacted the agency, and the elementary school counselor became involved and turned over her file to Social Services. The file said that she had been doing poorly in school, that there had always been problems at home--which was a lie--and that she had scored low on the test. And then it was just a nightmare, for a year."

Spearing and his current wife, Penny Spearing, were formally charged with misdemeanor child abuse, charges that later were dropped. According to a spokeswoman for the Pueblo County District Attorney's office, the charges were dropped because "it appeared the DA would not have enough evidence to prove child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt, and because the victim and the mother both felt" it would do no good to pursue the matter since Spearing's daughter by then lived with her mother, Spearing's ex-wife. But Spearing says that for him the battle won't be over until parents are protected from the long arm of the educational system.

"This amendment is absolutely necessary," he says. "It's the board of education, not the board of mental health. [The school] isn't there to teach morality to the children, or analyze the students. There is a danger that if you start toying around with a young mind you might plant an idea in his head. Down here in Pueblo we've spent a lot of money on sex education and I can tell you right now our children know a lot about sex education and our children have the highest pregnancy rate in the state.

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