- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

Both houses of the New Jersey Legislature have approved a bill that requires school districts to get written permission from parents before giving certain in-class surveys to students.

The legislation, which now awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, was passed in large part by the efforts of several parents from the Ridgewood, N.J., school district. The parents took action after students in grades seven to 12 were given a 156-page survey late last year that asked questions about their sex habits, their drug use and issues concerning their families and home lives.

Carole A. Nunn, whose daughter took the survey when she was in the ninth grade, called the lawmaker's actions a victory for parental rights.

"As far as I'm concerned, our schools can probe, pry, snoop and exploit our children with crude and repulsive surveys all they want," said Mrs. Nunn, a stay-at-home mother of four who has led the Ridgewood fight. "All this bill does is involve the parents and get their consent."

Mrs. Nunn and other parents said the survey was intrusive and violated their rights as parents. They demanded an apology from the school district and argued that administering the survey violated the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, which says parents must give written permission for their children to take federally funded surveys.

School officials in Ridgewood, an affluent town of 25,000 located about 45 minutes from New York City, used a $4,800 federal grant to pay for the "Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behavior" survey. It was developed by a Minneapolis nonprofit group called the Search Institute, which says it gathers information on youth to improve their lives.

Ridgewood school officials defended their use of the survey, and said plans to administer it were made public to the community in September, well in advance of when it was given on Nov. 2, 1999. School Superintendent Frederick Stokely also sent a letter about the survey home to parents.

The study, which school officials called anonymous, asked questions about suicide, threats of physical violence, alcohol consumption and gun use. It also queried students about their relationships with their parents and their views toward minorities. The results of the survey were to be made public.

Several angry Ridgewood parents complained about the survey to the U.S. Department of Education, citing violations of federal law. The results of the DOE's investigation still are pending, DOE spokesman Jim Bradshaw said yesterday.

Some parents also have filed a federal lawsuit against the school board, but the outcome of the case remains unresolved.

Steffanie Bell, spokeswoman for Mrs. Whitman, said the governor is reviewing the legislation, but has made no decision on whether she will make it law.

New Jersey Assemblyman Scott Garrett, a Republican who originated the parental-consent legislation, said the issue before the governor is one of fundamental rights. Mr. Garrett got involved because he heard such surveys were becoming an issue not only in his state, but nationally.

In March, school officials apologized to parents in New Milford, Conn., after children there were given a health survey that asked them, in graphic language, about such issues as oral and group sex.

"More and more groups are trying to get information from our kids," said Mr. Garrett, a conservative who sponsored the bill along with Assemblyman Guy Talarico.

"The bottom line is the parents should be the ones who make the decision about who comes in contact with their children and what sorts of questions that they are asked," he said. "It's a parental and child-privacy issue."

Mr. Garrett, who has served in the Legislature for 10 years, said parents often are not aware that their children are being asked such personal questions at school. He deflected the suggestion made by opponents of his bill that schools need to take such surveys to receive badly needed federal funds.

"Our bill would not prevent school districts from conducting surveys," Mr. Garrett said. "But on certain sensitive topics, parents would have to affirm, in writing, that they are aware of the information that will be disclosed and approve of their children's participation."

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