Parents appeal ruling in survey lawsuit against N.J. schools

NEW JERSEY — Parents who say their children were unlawfully given a health- and behavior-related survey by a school district have appealed a June federal court ruling that said the survey was permissible.

Attorneys with the Rutherford Institute have filed a brief on the parents’ behalf claiming the judge ignored evidence that the survey was not administered in a strictly voluntary or anonymous manner, as district officials promised.

Neither the court ruling nor the appeal seeks to limit the rights of students or student media to distribute surveys on school campuses.

The survey was given to students at Ridgewood High School and Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood in October 1999. It asked students questions on topics such as sexuality, depression, drug and alcohol use, academics and family matters.

The survey was designed to help district officials understand problems students face and how to better allocate resources to address those problems. The school district said it administered the survey on a voluntary basis and advised students not to put their names on the form.

The parents argue the survey violated student and family rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments, as well as the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment. Students were unlawfully required to incriminate themselves if they took the survey, the parents claim.

“Schools must not be allowed to use their authority to educate as a license to incriminate,” Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead said recently in a news release.

This is the second time parents will appeal for a new hearing of the case. In 2001, the parents were granted an appeal against the dismissal of the case. In June, a federal court granted summary judgement to the school district and said the survey and the manner of its administration did not violate students’ rights.

David Rubin, an attorney for the school district, said the courts have already made their decision clear in the two previous decisions.

“We believe that now two separate judges have agreed in two decisions that the [school] board did not violate the parents’ rights,” he said. “We think they got it right, and we are hopeful and confident that the appeals court will agree.”

Though the most recent ruling concluded that the school district did not violate students’ rights, a state law passed in 2002 now requires parental permission for schools to survey students.

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