PORTAGE, Ind.— Officials with the Portage Township School Corporation have agreed to cease their practice of having students complete mental health and suicide surveys without their parents' written consent after being warned by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute that doing so places them in violation of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), a federal law which governs student surveys by educational agencies receiving federal funding.
"This is a huge victory for parental rights," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "Parents are the ones who should decide whether they want their children to be mined for information about their personal thoughts, beliefs or practices. We take it seriously when government officials try to short-circuit that essential parent-child relationship."
According to a parent who contacted The Rutherford Institute for help, on at least two occasions Portage Township School District 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 asked 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 had 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 pointed 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, constituted 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.
The Institute argued that by allowing these surveys to be administered to students without written parental consent, the Portage Schools were acting in contravention to the rights of parents and the requirements of federal law. Portage Township officials responded to the Institute's demands by agreeing not to subject any student to mental health and suicide surveys unless their parents provide actual written consent.
In 2005, Rutherford Institute attorneys had 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.