June 16, 1999
Parents have just won a tremendous legal victory over the widespread public school
practice of forcing students to answer nosy, privacy-invading questions about themselves
and their families. The U.S. District Court in San Antonio, Texas, has signed the final
order of judgment in a class action case against the San Antonio Independent School
District (SAISD) brought by parents, who were represented by the Texas Justice Foundation (www.txjf.org).
The wide-reaching order is of landmark and nationwide importance. For many years,
parents have objected to the way that schools force students to respond to nonacademic
questionnaires intruding on pupil and family privacy and involving matters that are none of
the school's business.
Parents also object to the way that the so-called therapeutic classroom is crowding
out academics and basic skills. Schoolchildren are routinely subjected, not only to
intrusive, depressing surveys, but also to psychological and attitudinal exams and
guidance counseling, usually without parental knowledge or consent.
The case called Lisa T. v. SAISD began when 10-year-old Melissa's mother voiced her
objections to the Hillcrest Elementary School about sex education, death and suicide
education, and the lack of academic instruction. Lisa T.'s daughter tested three years
below grade level and her son tested four years below grade level as a result of being
taught about UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, how to embalm, etc., instead of spelling and
Complaints to the superintendent and the school board got Lisa T. nothing but
harassment of Melissa, who was subjected to interrogations about "what her mother was up
to." The SAISD then administered intrusive, psychological surveys to students at
Jefferson High School, delving into the feelings and emotions and invading their personal
privacy and family relationships.
Teachers assured students that their survey responses would remain confidential even
from parents. Concurrently, the school conducted daily classes that gave comprehensive
group guidance counseling, without parental preview or consent, and without respecting the
conscience or convictions of the parents or students.
Here are samples from the nosy questionnaires. "What do you consider to be the best
thing about your home and the worst? How do you get along at home? If you could change
one thing about your family, what would it be and why?"
More depressing questions from the SAISD's surveys included: "What's the thing you
need most that you are not getting from your family? Has anybody close to you died in the
last year or so? Do you ever wish you were a boy or a girl instead of what you are? What
things do you worry about?"
Another question reveals the dramatic curriculum changes that have taken place in
the public schools: "Select the group counseling sessions you would like to participate
in: Managing Anger; Parent/Teen Conflict; Coping with Stress; Interpersonal Relationship;
Grief/Loss; Study Skills; Other."
The court's order in the Lisa T. case requires the school district henceforth to
obtain parental consent for all guidance counseling, psychological exams, and intrusive
surveys. The consent forms must notify parents if the surveys include controversial
topics such as political affiliations, sexual behavior and attitudes, or requests for
privileged information, including potentially embarrassing mental and psychological
SAISD shredded all its objectionable intrusive surveys in the presence of parent
representatives. Parents were notified that they could review their own children's
questionnaires prior to the shredding.
SAISD will establish a new district-wide committee of parents and school staff to
review possibly-intrusive surveys prior to submitting them for approval or rejection by
the school board and before asking for parental consent. The district will give employees
in-service training on state and federal parental rights and instruct them that they may
not retaliate, intimidate, interrogate, or harass students or parents who are exercising
This Texas case is the latest chapter in a long-running battle against nosy surveys
about sex, drugs, death, attitudes, and family matters, and against psychological tests
and courses, that first received national attention with the passage of the Protection of
Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) by Congress in 1978. The public school establishment, led
by the National Education Association, had a collective tantrum when the Reagan
Administration issued regulations in 1984.
Seven days of hearings held by the Department of Education in 1984 put hundreds of
cases of psychological abuse in the classroom on the record, but the public school
establishment continued to bitterly oppose enforcement of PPRA.
Despite a strengthening of the law's language by Senator Chuck Grassley's amendment
in 1994, despite pledges of enforcement in the Contract With America, and despite
notorious violations such as the 149-question federally-financed survey given to Minnesota
children in 1989, PPRA has never been enforced until now. This issue is more important in
1999 than ever before because technology now allows the data collected on nosy surveys to
be entered in student computer portfolios that can be used against the student all his
The Lisa T. case marks a real turning point in the battle for parents' rights. It
provides a model for what parents and their lawyers can accomplish elsewhere.