Families & the Community

Parental Rights at Issue In Probe of Student Survey

By Darcia Harris Bowman — January 26, 2000 6 min read
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A federal investigation into a survey given by a New Jersey school district is calling attention to a little-known law that requires parental consent before students can be asked about sensitive topics.

The U.S. Department of Education is looking into complaints from a small group of parents in the Ridgewood district about a poll taken last fall without parents’ permission. Students were questioned about their sexual habits, experience with drugs and alcohol, and mental health, among other matters.

Carole A. Nunn, whose 15-year-old daughter responded to the survey with other high school students in early November, is alleging the district violated the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment.

Frederick J. Stokley, the superintendent of the 5,000-student district in northeast Bergen County, 15 miles from New York City, said administrators didn’t know about the federal requirement and had informed parents of the district’s intention to administer the survey. The poll was taken in response to community concern following the fatal shootings last spring at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo.

“With Columbine and all the school shootings, everyone wants to get in these kids’ heads,” Ms. Nunn said last week. “I want to know what’s on their minds, too, but let’s not violate students’ civil rights, and let’s not violate their parents’ civil rights.”

The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment in part requires districts to get written parental consent before students fill out any survey that is funded with dollars from the federal Education Department and asks about political affiliation, mental and psychological problems, sexual behavior and attitudes, illegal or self-incriminating and demeaning behavior, critical appraisals of family relationships, relationships with lawyers, doctors, and ministers, or income.

The statute was passed by Congress in 1994 as a rewrite of a law that has been on the books since 1978. But legal experts and federal officials say the latest version is seldom invoked.

“Districts should be aware of this, but it’s not something that would generally come into play,” said LeRoy S. Rooker, the director of the Education Department’s family-policy compliance office, which is heading the investigation of the Ridgewood complaints. “Our approach is we generally don’t think schools are intentionally violating these laws. It tends to comes down to a lack of training and knowledge about the law.”

‘Small Supporting Role’

Perry F. Zirkel, a professor of law and education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., found only two lawsuits under the 1994 statute in a quick review of case history last week. Even in those cases, he said, the amendment took a back seat to broader constitutional claims.

“It tends to play a small supporting role in lawsuits, and school people don’t know about it because it doesn’t have the star role,” Mr. Zirkel said. “My impression of Ridgewood—and I have been there and worked with them—is they are a forward-looking district that tries to do the right thing and normally succeeds. In this case, they were not aware of the exact contours of this revised amendment.”

Ronald P. Verdicchio, the director of Ridgewood’s Community School and the district’s liaison with community organizations like the local coalition that proposed the survey, said the federal law never came up as he worked with the New Jersey Department of Education to ensure the school properly complied with requirements of the federal Goals 2000 program, the source of funding for project.

The administrator believes the law’s obscurity sets an unintended trap for local schools using federal funds.

“This thing is a real surprise to a lot of people,” Mr. Verdicchio said. “It’s a real policy problem for this state, and I would think for others.”

‘Profiles of Student Life’

The 156-question survey, “Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors,” was given in late October and early November to 2,100 Ridgewood students in grades 7 through 12 at the request of the Vision Team, a village group composed of district officials, community-agency representatives, and government officials.

The school district purchased the poll from Search Institute of Minneapolis with a $4,800 Goals 2000 grant. It questioned teenagers about most of the topics covered under the pupil-rights amendment as well as academic performance, drug and alcohol use, suicide, eating habits, and self-esteem.

Parents were notified about the survey twice in writing, according to copies of letters provided by Superintendent Stokley.

A five-page letter sent to parents on May 19, a month after the Columbine shootings, mentions in the second-to-last paragraph a community group’s plans to survey village children ages 12 to 19 in September.

The second notice from the superintendent, dated Sept. 1, describes the survey and provides parents who want more information with a phone contact and an e-mail address. It also tells parents they can review copies of the survey at the district’s high school and two middle schools.

Neither letter includes the date on which the poll would be taken. Neither requests written parental consent. And neither letter asks parents to notify the school if they do not want their children to participate.

Mr. Stokley said he believes his letters constituted an attempt to get “passive consent” from parents.

Ridgewood administrators were given materials by the Search Institute on how to inform students and parents about the survey, which has been used by more than 1,300 schools since 1989.

In both an administration manual and a general-information booklet given to schools, the organization defines both active and passive consent and advises schools to send out a general written announcement that informs parents of their right to remove their children from the study.

The material also warns schools that “the type of consent required for a study depends on the relevant federal, state, and local regulations.”

Guidance from contractors aside, legal experts say school administrators are responsible for knowing and understanding the law.

“These laws have been on the books long enough, and there is a presupposition in this country that ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Thomas W. Stack, a staff lawyer for the San Antonio-based Texas Justice Foundation, said. “I think [school administrators] do know about it, but too often they just think, ‘This is my school and I’ll run it like I want to.’”

The foundation, a nonprofit public-interest litigation firm that advocates parental rights, represented parents who sued the San Antonio Independent School District over a survey given to more than 600 high school students in September 1998.

The district agreed as part of a settlement to get parental consent for polls on sensitive topics such as those covered by the federal pupil-rights amendment.

Conflicting Principles?

After reflecting on the controversy in his district, Mr. Stokley said he sees conflicting principles that have been debated since the founding of the nation.

“This reminds me very much of the debate between Jefferson and Hamilton—Hamilton argued for the common good and Jefferson for the rights of the individual,” the superintendent said. “I sympathize with the concerns of these parents, but I also think the intention of the survey was good.”

Ms. Nunn and Frances Edwards, whose three children were too young to respond to the survey, said the schools also failed to inform students that participation in the study was voluntary—an allegation Mr. Stokley denies.

The parents want the results of the study withheld pending the outcome of the investigation.

The district met their request late last week by canceling a Feb. 9 public release of the data.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Parental Rights at Issue In Probe of Student Survey

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