Bill could prevent N.H. high school students from surveying their peers

NEW HAMPSHIRE — A representative on the New Hampshire General Court doesn’t want student journalists to survey their classmates.

Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Republican, introduced on Jan. 8 a bill requiring school districts to get written parental consent before administering any surveys about students’ social behavior, family life, religion, political beliefs, sexual orientation or other non-academic information. The legislation would require all surveys be available on the school’s website for parental review at least one week before giving it to students.

Boehm said the rules would also apply to surveys from student reporters because the school serves as publisher and sponsor of the newspaper. He said he hopes schools will tell the newspaper staff they are not allowed to survey students on sensitive topics.

The bill is a response to complaints from parents who feel their children have been asked to give sensitive information, Boehm said, adding that there are “surveys and questionnaires going around that a lot of people are considering inappropriate.”

Parents should have a chance to learn what their children are being exposed to and to decide if they think it’s appropriate, he said. The bill would also prevent teachers from requiring invasive assignments, such as asking students to report the contents of their family’s medicine cabinet or refrigerator.

“Let’s start teaching the kids and let’s stop getting involved in their lives,” he said.

Stan Zoller, Journalism Education Association’s eastern region director, said he was “amazed by the lack of depth in this bill.” The bill’s vague language, he said, could prohibit student journalists from administering surveys about anything from students’ music tastes to their sexual orientation.

Additionally, he said he worries the bill could open the door to other restrictions on student reporting, such as requiring reporters to get parental consent before interviewing students about non-academic topics.

“What if you wanted to interview a football player about a concussion? That’s a medical issue,” he said, “so would you have to get mom and dad’s permission?”

A similar bill was introduced to the Virginia General Assembly on Jan. 14. The bill made it through the education committee on Wednesday with amendments regarding how parents will be notified about surveys. The original bill required schools to notify parents through an electronic notification and in writing. The amended bill would allow schools to decide how to notify parents.

The federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment requires schools to receive parental consent before a student can participate in Department of Education-funded surveys about sexual behavior, mental and psychological problems, political affiliation and other topics. However, voluntary, anonymous surveys are exempt.

Fourteen states have laws to regulate surveys in schools. Several state laws, including in Arkansas and California, require parental approval for surveys about sensitive topics but do not mention whether surveys from students are included. Colorado’s law exempts student journalists from restrictions on surveys that apply to school employees.

“Doing local surveys is good, original reporting and not just assuming that something that was done by a major organization reflects your school,” Zoller said. “We want to teach our student journalists to get more information and to give the news consumer something to think about.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.