N.J. law prohibits school surveys without parental approval

NEW JERSEY — A bill prohibiting school districts fromadministering surveys that ask students sensitive questions withoutwritten parental consent was signed into law on Jan. 7 by then-actingGov. Donald DiFrancesco.

The new law, which is seen as a response to parents’ complaintsfollowing a fall 1999 survey of 2,100 students in the northernNew Jersey suburb of Ridgewood, does not appear to limit the information-seekingrights of student journalists.

Under the law, school districts are the only parties specificallybarred from non-consented surveys. Part of it reads, “unlessa school district receives prior written informed consent froma student’s parent or legal guardian and provides for a copy ofthe document to be available for viewing at convenient locationsand time periods, the school district shall not administer toa student any academic or nonacademic survey” that revealspersonal information.

School officials and politicians have fought the bill, citingit as an impediment to research. Some parents, who want permissionto review all school-administered surveys, laud its passage asa protector of individual rights.

“I don’t want any agency or organization making moneyoff the backs of my kids,” said Carole Nunn, one of threeparents who has been engaged in a two-year legal battle with schooladministrators over the survey. Nunn said her and another mother’sfight for the bill was like “David against Goliath and hiswhole family.”

The measure was vetoed in January 2001 by then-Gov. ChristineTodd Whitman, who felt that parental control over participationin school surveys would hurt research conducted by state and federalagencies.

“It affects most educational and health agencies, notallowing them to conduct these surveys, to do an analysis or diagnosis,”said Ridgewood Superintendent Frederick Stokley.

Search Institute of Minneapolis created the Ridgewood survey,which was titled “Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes andBehavior” and asked 156 questions on personal issues includingsex, drug and alcohol use, and family relationships. Stokley saidthe district intended to use survey results to implement programsto help students.

The school district used a $4,800 federal grant to fund thesurvey and administered it during class time on several days tostudents in seventh through 12th grade.

A small group of parents, upset by what they saw as the intrusivenature of the survey, cited a little-known federal statute calledthe Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment in complaints to thefederal Department of Education and a federal court. Under the1974 statute, any school surveys paid for in whole or in partwith federal funding must have advance written consent of theparents if they include information in any of seven categoriesseen to be intrusive.

In December, the Department of Education responded, findingthat 66 of the 156 survey questions in the Ridgewood survey breachedthe federal statute. Those questions included queries into “sexbehavior and attitudes,” “illegal, anti-social, self-incriminatingand demeaning behavior” and “critical appraisals ofother individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships.”

Nunn and two other parents, along with the Rutherford Institute,a conservative group that defends claims of discrimination,took the school district to federal court, claiming violations of theProtection of Pupil Rights Amendment and the Family EducationalRight to Privacy Act. Although the case was originally dismissed,the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in Decemberthat the case could go forward.

Stokley said he finds the new state law “redundant”and that asking prior parental consent invalidates research results,since the response is often quite low. “I think this [typeof research] is so crucial regarding what is happening today inour youth,” he said.

Read full text of the student survey law.Copies of the appeals court decision and education department’s ruling are available from a Web site created by parents challenging the student surveys.