- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Imagine a school where 13-year-old children are asked to report whether they have multiple sex partners and to answer questions concerning their parents and relatives' marital practices, addictions, weight and diseases. Could this be the Soviet Union, perhaps? Nazi Germany? Or America's own Ridgewood, New Jersey where students and parents recently celebrated a victory won in a federal court, which ruled the families could argue in federal court that a forced survey gleaning personal information from students was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Department of Education also ruled that the school district violated federal law by surveying students on sex, drugs, and suicide without parental consent. The Ridgewood case also served as a catalyst for a new law passed in New Jersey on Jan. 7, which made it a requirement for parents to give informed written consent before students are given surveys or tests which could reveal such personal information as sexual behavior, family income and other personal family matters, regardless of whether the test was federally funded or not. Why does it take a new law and a two-year lawsuit to convince school board officials to respect civil liberties? The bad new is, it hasn't.

In the fall of 1999, students ages 11 to 18 in the Ridgewood School District were required to answer questions about their own drug use, sexual life and any illegal activity they had been involved in. The 156-question survey asked students to name how many times they had tried to kill themselves, made themselves throw up after they eat, used contraception or breathed the contents of an aerosol spray can to get high. This, without the parents' written consent or knowledge of the questions that would be asked. Judge Nicholas Politan of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed the case in February of last year, falsely claiming that federal funds were not used in fact, $5,000 was gleaned from taxpayers for the survey and disregarding students' sworn affidavits that they had been forced to take the survey during class time or be counted as absent. The case then went on to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, where the three-judge panel ruled the district court was wrong, that plaintiffs could argue in federal court that the survey violated rights to silence, substantive due process, privacy and from household intrusion as protected by the First, Fifth, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

But that wasn't enough for the Ridgewood school board and Ridgewood Schools Superintendent Frederick Stokley, who still maintain that the survey was voluntary, even though every student in grades seven through 12 of the affected schools was made to take it, even if they had been absent. They have called for a rehearing by the same three-judge panel from the appeals court which just ruled against them, and the case cannot proceed back to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey until the panel decides whether to grant the school board's request.

Meanwhile, Ridgewood students were forced to submit to more of the same type of nosy questions and worse. In a different survey disbursed once again during health class without parents' permission to George Washington Middle School last year, students were asked to rate themselves on how at-risk they were for bad behavior. Students had to put their names on the survey, titled "How am I," and were given a grade for it. A few of the survey questions given to seventh graders:

• "Are you engaging in risky sexual behavior (multiple partners, no protection from STDs or unwanted pregnancy, etc)?"

• "Are there guns in your home or the homes of your friends?"

• "Has your life changed significantly in the past year (e.g. through illness, your parents' divorce, a death in the family, financial problems, a move to another city)?"

If the child made it through questions on how many times he brushed his teeth, takes illegal drugs and drives drunk, he then gets to divulge the private life of mommy and daddy: "Do you have a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle who … Developed breast cancer? … Is an alcoholic? Is significantly overweight? Developed colon cancer?"

The child must then graph his positive and negative behaviors so that he can see in black and white how "at-risk" he is. A better question would be to ask how at-risk families are of being controlled by school board secret agents. The Department of Education ruling carried with it no penalties for the school district. Perhaps that could be amended to force the Ridgewood Board of Education to take the same surveys it gave to the children, and let the families of Ridgewood do the grading.

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide