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Education Reporter

Ridgewood Parents Wonder if New
Law Will Stop Nosy Questionnaires
RIDGEWOOD, NJ - New Jersey has a new law requiring the state's public schools to obtain written parental consent before administering surveys to students asking for personal information. This law expands the federal Pupil and Parents Rights Act (PPRA) by applying the consent requirement to all nosy surveys, not only those paid for with federal dollars. (See Education Reporter, January 2002.)

The New Jersey law was drafted two years ago in response to a 1999 Search Institute survey asking for personal information, which was given to 2,100 students in the Ridgewood School District without parental knowledge or consent and using federal Goals 2000 funds. Several parents filed a lawsuit against the district and, in December 2001, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the suit could go forward to prove constitutional and legal violations. Also in December, the U.S. Department of Education found the Ridgewood District in violation of the PPRA for administering the survey without prior written permission from parents. (See Briefs)

The new law should put an end to nosy questionnaires in Ridgewood and all other public school districts in New Jersey, but some parents wonder if and when this will happen. Last April, despite the pending legislation, litigation, and the ongoing Education Department investigation, a teacher at the George Washington Middle School in the Ridgewood District gave 7th and 8th graders another questionnaire seeking personal information. Titled "How Am I," this survey was copied from a health magazine and asked 12- and 13-year-old students 55 personal questions, including:

  • Have you ever driven a car after drinking alcohol, or ridden with a driver who seemed impaired? 
  • Are there guns in your home or the homes of your friends? 
  • Are you engaging in risky sexual behavior (multiple partners, no protection from STDs or unwanted pregnancy, etc.)? 
  • Has your life changed significantly in the past year (e.g., through illness, your parents' divorce, a death in the family, financial problems, a move to another city)? 
  • Are you continually worrying or anxious about anything? 
  • Do you often think about yourself in negative terms (stupid, worthless, unlovable, etc.)? 
  • Do you feel strong connections to family? 
  • Do you drink beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages? 
  • If you drink, do you drink intending to get drunk? 
  • Have you used any kind of drugs, including over-the-counter or prescription medications? 
  • Do you hang around with a crowd that smokes, drinks, or uses drugs? 
  • Have you ever made choices while "under the influence" of drugs or alcohol that you later regretted? 
  • Do you have a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle who:
    • Is an alcoholic? 
    • Is significantly overweight? 
    • Developed colon cancer?
  • Do you have easy access to medical care from a doctor, a school-based clinic, or other source?

Some parents found it hard to believe that, in view of all that was going on in the wake of the Search Institute survey, a Ridgewood teacher not only administered this questionnaire during health class, but told students to put their names on it and, after answering the questions, to graph their responses to indicate their levels of risky behavior. The students received a mark on the questionnaire to be applied to their class grades.

"As soon as the word got out, the school destroyed the paperwork," reports parent Carole Nunn, whose 13-year-old son filled out the questionnaire. "There was no indication in the approved curriculum for the class that a risk-behavior survey would be included.

"This teacher may have taken it upon herself to give the questionnaire," Mrs. Nunn explained, "but Ridgewood officials and some members of the school board defended her action. Had our son not told us about it, it would have been the school's little secret."

At a subsequent school board meeting, parents expressed their shock and dismay over the incident, while school board members quibbled over what constitutes a "survey." Ridgewood Superintendent Frederick Stokley issued a statement that read in part: "The purpose of the personal inventory as stated was 'to answer the health and lifestyle related questions to find out where you (the student) stand in each category and whether you may need to develop strategies and choices to improve your health and well being'. . . . This teacher, working with her students in the classroom has, over the years, and with the many classes she has instructed, been able to develop a high level of trust and mutual respect with her students. . . . The results of this personal inventory were known and used by each student. They were not aggregated or collected to compose a class profile."

But some parents, including Carole Nunn, question whether such self-diagnoses are of any real value. "My son, and other students as well, I'm sure, marked whatever answers he pleased, without really reading or considering the questions. I was appalled to discover, for example, that he had circled 'no' in response to whether he has access to regular medical care. This was very misleading, since he gets a checkup every year and sees a doctor when necessary. So it's questionable whether these personal intrusions yield much factual information."

Parent Frances Edwards agrees. In a letter to the editor of the Washington Times, she stated: "The data gatherers' need for this information does not equal my right to privacy or my children's right to remain silent."

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