|Back to January Ed Reporter|
|NUMBER 191||THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS||JANUARY 2002|
|Triple Win for Parents' Rights in New Jersey|
Parents win on appeal in nosy questionnaire case! |
RIDGEWOOD, NJ - A federal appeals court ruled last month in C.N. v. Ridgewood Board of Education that parents can go forward with their lawsuit against the Ridgewood School District and that the charges of constitutional violations can proceed in federal court. This lawsuit stems from the school district's 1999 administration of an intrusive survey using federal Goals 2000 funds. (See court decision.) This decision reverses a Feb. 15, 2001 District Court ruling in favor of the school board.
At issue was a 156-question survey called "Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors," which probed students about their personal lives and activities. The survey included questions about sex, drugs, suicide, incriminating behavior, spirituality, tolerance, and other personal matters. (See Education Reporter, January 2000.)
Question 108 asked students "how many times, if any, in the last 12 months have you used LSD?" The acceptable answers were "0"; "1"; "2"; "3-5"; "6-9"; "10-19"; "20-30"; or "40+" times. Question 101 was: "Have you ever tried to kill yourself?" Acceptable answers were "No"; "Yes, once"; "Yes, twice"; "Yes, more than two times."
Question 56 asked students to incriminate themselves by divulging how many times they had "stolen something from a store." Question 59 asked if they had "damaged property just for fun"? Questions 105-107 asked if they had used heroin, opium, morphine, alawan, PCP or Angel Dust. Students at Ridgewood High School and two middle schools, some as young as 12 years old, completed this survey under the assurance of anonymity.
Some parents were shocked that such an "intrusive" and "offensive" survey was given to their children. Seven parents filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Family Policy Compliance Office (FPCO), charging that the school district violated the PPRA by using a federal grant to administer the survey without obtaining prior written parental permission. Several parents also initiated legal action.
When the federal District Court ruled against these parents, they appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. "The Appeals Court ruled unanimously in our favor," explains parent-plaintiff C. N., "but the school district has now filed a petition for a rehearing with the three original justices. To succeed at this effort, these three judges would have to agree to a rehearing."
The Department of Education letter confirmed that the school district violated all four requirements of the PPRA: (1) the survey was funded with federal education (Goals 2000) funds; (2) the students were "required" to participate in the survey; (3) the survey asked questions that would reveal information in three of the prohibited information categories; (4) the school district did not obtain prior written consent from the parents.
The new law requires that schools obtain informed written parental consent before giving surveys or tests asking for information about political affiliations, potentially embarrassing mental and psychological problems, sexual behavior and attitudes, family income and other personal family matters, legally privileged matters, and more. It also imposes monetary penalties for school districts found in violation of its provisions. "It's a solid, wonderful law," asserts New Jersey Eagle Forum leader Carolee Adams.
When details of the Ridgewood "Profiles of Student Life" questionnaire surfaced two years ago, Mrs. Adams and State Assemblyman E. Scott Garrett collaborated on a bill (A2351) to protect students from intrusive school surveys. (See Education Reporter, June 2000.)
This bill passed both houses of the New Jersey legislature in 2000, but was vetoed by then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman. After Whitman's veto, bills requiring informed parental consent were re-introduced in both the state Assembly and Senate.
Many parents are thrilled that New Jersey's PPRA has finally become law. "It is reassuring to know that students in New Jersey will no longer have to endure violations of their privacy rights simply because they go to public school," said parent Carole A. Nunn, whose child completed the "Profiles" questionnaire in 1999. This survey prompted a lawsuit that recently yielded a victory for parents.
"The new law is but one step in defending our children from ever-greater government control," Assemblyman Garrett points out. "Ask any audience of parents, 'Who knows and loves your children more - you or the bureaucrats?' and the response is predictable."
Carolee Adams adds: "It's important that simultaneous judicial and legislative actions are bringing more attention to the travesty of intrusive surveys in our schools. With such a dual approach, we are better assured of victory for our families and our freedom.