- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Have you ever had sexual intercourse ('gone all the way, made love')"? As of this month, students in New Jersey public schools can't be asked this kind of personal question on a survey without their parents' prior written consent.
The Jan. 9 law enacting this change has been hailed as a victory for privacy rights of parents and their children and something that should be adopted nationally.
Researchers, however, say the law is "excessive" and will jeopardize important research into teen behavior.
There has long been a tug-of-war over student surveys in schools.
Researchers agree that schools are the ideal place to survey teens and have typically addressed the need for parental consent with a technique called "passive consent," "active dissent" or "opt out."
With this technique, schools inform parents of an upcoming survey and ask them to tell the school if they don't want their children to take it parents must "actively dissent" or "opt out." If the school doesn't hear from the parents, it assumes it has their "passive consent" to give the survey to their children.
The New Jersey law requires "active consent," which means parents must tell the school that their children can take a survey. If parents don't say yes, their children cannot participate in any school survey that asks questions about politics, sex, drugs and other personal issues.
The law stems from a battle over a 156-question survey that was given in 1999 to more than 2,000 public middle- and high-school students in Ridgewood, N.J.
The survey asked teens about sexual activity, birth control, drugs, liquor, cigarettes, binge eating, depression, suicide, stealing, physical violence, and relationships with family and friends.
School officials said they notified parents several times about the survey but did not seek parental consent because the survey was voluntary.
Many Ridgewood parents were outraged by the survey, saying it introduced children to bad behaviors, invaded family privacy and instilled a politically liberal worldview.
"The questions were so politically correct," said Ridgewood mother Frances Edwards, noting that students were asked to assess their feelings about race relations, poverty and "speaking up for equality."
Amid a lengthy battle which includes an ongoing lawsuit New Jersey officials passed their law, which was hailed as a "great victory for parents" by Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum.
"The school system is just obsessed with giving these nosy questionnaires," Mrs. Schlafly said.
Schools shouldn't use valuable classroom time on social surveys, but if they do, they should all require active parental consent, she said.
"Now in New Jersey, there will be one state where the parents will not always lose," said Michael Schwartz, vice president for government relations at Concerned Women for America, which supports parental rights in surveys.
Getting active parental consent for student surveys is "analogous to doing medical research," Mr. Schwartz said. Medical research can only be conducted on people who consent to it, he said. "Why in the world would we think you can do research on children without their parents' knowledge and consent?"
Shepherd Smith, president of the Institute for Youth Development, which publishes a journal on teen behaviors, is "empathetic to both sides" in the issue.
"Clearly as a parent, I'm not real excited about intrusive surveys in high school," he said. "At the same time, I understand that the data gained in these surveys is critically important to ultimately reducing the negative behaviors."
Supporters of the N.J. law "may have won a Pyrrhic victory," said Lloyd D. Johnston, director of the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey.
The federally funded MTF, founded in 1975, goes into 400 schools every year to ask eighth, 10th and 12th graders about their substance abuse and other behaviors.
MTF uses active dissent in almost all its schools, said Mr. Johnston, who works at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
In the few schools that require active consent, he said, MTF researchers have found that many parents don't return the consent form "they didn't open their mail or get around to answering it," Mr. Johnston said.
As a result, as many as 30 percent of students are excluded from taking the MTF survey, even though, based on deeper research, fewer than 2 percent of parents actually object to the survey.
The loss of so many students "skews the findings in a serious and important way," Mr. Johnston said.
"Parents, more than anyone, stand to benefit from our having this knowledge," he said, noting that the MTF helped alert the nation to expanding marijuana use in the 1970s, cocaine use in the 1980s and ecstasy use in the 1990s.
"So I'm not sure the interests of parents are being well-served, even though it's in their name that these efforts are taken," he said.
"I have yet to hear someone come up with an alternative approach to getting data other than asking the question," said Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Parental concerns about sensitive surveys of young teens are reasonable and should be addressed, perhaps with opt-out techniques, said Mrs. Brown. But there are compelling public health concerns that require data about teen behavior that have to be addressed as well, she said.
It's difficult to ask teens questions about topics such as oral sex, and yet "every time there's something in the paper, we get hysterical calls asking isn't it true that all the middle schoolers are having oral sex?"
"And I have to say, 'Well, I actually don't have any information. All I have is anecdotes,'" Mrs. Brown said.
"I see [the N.J. law] as excessive," said Michael D. Resnick, a pediatrics professor at the University of Minnesota and researcher with the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health).
"The vast majority of parents are all right [with surveys] as long as they are informed," he said, citing his two decades of experience in researching teen behavior.
Add Health, which tracks the same teens, requires written prior consent, said Mr. Resnick. It also uses laptop computers for privacy and question control when teens say they have had sex or used cocaine, they are asked more questions about those subjects. But if they say they haven't had sex or used drugs, the computer program immediately moves them to new topic.
Such computer-assisted surveys are becoming more popular and may resolve a lot of the concerns about survey content, Mr. Resnick said.

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