PORTAGE, Ind.— The Rutherford Institute is demanding that an Indiana school district cease its practice of having students complete mental health and suicide surveys without their parents' written consent. In a letter to the Portage Township School Corporation, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn that by administering surveys which ask overtly intrusive questions about suicide risk and drug use without obtaining written parental consent, Portage Township High School is acting in contravention to the rights of parents and the requirements of federal law, specifically, the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), a federal law which governs student surveys by educational agencies receiving federal funding.
"No government official, whether it be a school official or a welfare agency, has the authority to usurp the rights of parents or the right of students to not be exposed to inappropriate and intrusive material," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "These rights should certainly not be sacrificed in the quest, no matter how important others might consider it, to mine students for information about their personal thoughts, beliefs or practices."
According to a parent who contacted The Rutherford Institute for help, on at least two recent occasions Portage Township High School has sent home information addressed to parents concerning surveys to be administered to students in a quest for information about student drug use and depression or suicide risks. The surveys ask students to provide sensitive, personal information, including information about illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating and demeaning behavior and/or mental and psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student. However, rather than requesting the parent's prior written consent, as required by federal and state law and its own district policy, the school included an "opt-out" form, allowing the parent to opt his or her student out of participation. In the case of the survey concerning suicide risk, only one day was allotted for the parent to review the provided information, make a decision, sign the enclosed "opt-out" form, and return it to school officials.
Institute attorneys point out that the school district's practice of relying on passive consent for the surveys, by which parents are presumed to have consented if they do not return a particular form, constitutes a violation of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), a federal law intended to protect the privacy of students and the rights of parents to control the circumstances under which their children are exploited for information-gathering. PPRA, which covers educational entities that receive federal funds, applies whenever students are asked to submit to any survey, analysis or evaluation that seeks private information about the student, such as political affiliations, sexual activity, illegal activities or religious beliefs.
Pointing out that by allowing these surveys to be administered to students without written parental consent, the Portage Schools are acting in contravention to the rights of parents and the requirements of federal law, Institute attorneys have demanded that school officials immediately adopt and make public a policy that affirms the rights of parents and students and the school district's commitment to not subject any student to surveys seeking personal information unless their parents provide actual written consent. In 2005, Rutherford Institute attorneys filed a civil rights lawsuit in defense of a 15-year-old student from South Bend, Ind., who was subjected by school officials to a controversial mental health examination known as TeenScreen without the consent of her parents.