Law & Courts

Student Survey Found to Violate Federal Law

By Darcia Harris Bowman — January 09, 2002 2 min read
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A New Jersey school district broke a little-known federal law two years ago when it surveyed students on drugs, sex, and other sensitive topics, the U.S. Department of Education has declared.

The 5,200-student Ridgewood, N.J., district violated the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment by requiring almost 2,000 students to answer questions about their sexual habits, their experience with drugs and alcohol, and their mental health in a 156-question poll paid for with federal Goals 2000 money, according to the department ruling issued last month.

Prompted by complaints from several Ridgewood parents, the decision is based largely on affidavits from four students who said they believed the survey in the fall of 1999 was mandatory.

“I was very pleased with the ruling—it vindicated me,” said Carole A. Nunn, one of the parents who filed a complaint with the department. “This is a message to other school districts who think they can do these surveys without getting parents’ permission: You better think again because you could find yourself in a lawsuit, or a federal investigation, or risk losing federal funds.”

Although the department’s decision carried no penalties for the Ridgewood schools, the district must furnish evidence within the next month that it has reminded its officials about the law’s requirement for written parental consent before students fill out such surveys.

Findings Disputed

The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment requires districts to get written parental consent before students fill out any survey that is financed with money from the federal Education Department and asks personal questions on such matters as political affiliation, psychological problems, sexual behavior and attitudes, critical appraisals of family relationships, income, illegal or self-incriminating behavior, or relationships with lawyers, doctors, or ministers. (“Parental Rights at Issue in Probe of Student Survey,” Jan. 26, 2000.)

Some district officials dismissed the ruling as unsubstantiated.

“I thought it was a disgrace, quite frankly, and an embarrassment to the Department of Education,” said Charles V. Reilly, the president of the Ridgewood school board. “How you draw such sweeping conclusions from so little evidence—it’s outrageous. There’s no question we’re being used as a whipping boy by people who are, in my view, conservative extremists.”

Ms. Nunn said she hopes the ruling can be used as evidence in an ongoing federal lawsuit against the district, in which three Ridgewood parents allege the school system violated the constitutional rights of parents and students when it administered the survey.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Student Survey Found to Violate Federal Law

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