N.J. school district can distribute voluntary surveys to students, federal court rules

NEW JERSEY — Ridgewood school district officials werewithin their rights when they administered a survey on health-related topics tostudents in 1999, a federal court has ruled. The school district didnot violate federal laws by surveying middle and high school students on topicssuch as substance abuse, sexuality, stress and depression, according to a June 3U.S. district court ruling. “A voluntary, anonymous andconfidential student survey without individually identifiable results that wasadministered only after fair notice to parents does not amount to aconstitutional privacy violation,” wrote Judge Jose L. Linares in hisruling. Student media advocates feared that if the school was found inviolation of any laws, student journalists would not be allowed to conductsurveys of students at school without parental permission. The surveywas initiated by the Human Resources Coordinating Council, made up of serviceagencies and community members, to help the district understand the problemsstudents face and how to distribute resources for communityservices.After the surveys were administered, three parents sued onbehalf of their children claiming violations of the Family Educational Rightsand Privacy Act and the Protection of Pupil Rights Act. They also said theschool district violated the rights against compelled speech, unreasonableintrusion, due process, privacy and self-incrimination. Thought theparents’ claims were rejected, the state Legislature passed a law afterthe Ridgewood survey incident that requires parents to give written permissionbefore a school district distributes to their children any surveys.Charles Reilly, president of the Ridgewood school board, whose lawsuitagainst the state law was unsuccessful, said the law is unconstitutional andharmful to school districts’ efforts to create programs to help students.On June 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released anannual report “Assessing Health Risk Behaviors Among Young People.”It included no results for New Jersey because school districts were not able toget a high enough percentage of parents to sign-off on their children’sparticipation in the survey, Reilly said.“There are certainlyresults that any caring school district would want to know about, and certainlyin terms of use of drugs or attempts at suicide that you would want to developprograms to address,” Reilly said. “Without that kind of database,it’s hard to really argue for those [programs].”The statelaw says it applies to “surveys conducted by school districts” anddoes not prohibit surveys conducted by individual students.

C.N., et al. v. Ridgewood Board of Education, No. 00-1072 (D. N.J., June 3, 2004)

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