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On The Front Lines

Victory: School Agrees to Cease Administering Student Sex Surveys Without Parental Consent

FITCHBURG, Mass. — In response to recent demands by The Rutherford Institute that culminated in the filing of a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, the Fitchburg School Committee has passed a new policy that will allow students to be given intrusive surveys only where parents have given written consent. The policy brings the school into compliance with the requirements of the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) by eliminating the "passive consent" system by which parents were previously deemed to consent if they did not specifically opt out of surveys.

The federal complaint is available here.

"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."

In April 2011, The Rutherford Institute warned the Fitchburg City School Committee that by allowing highly inappropriate surveys to be administered to students without written parental consent, the Fitchburg Public Schools were 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. After receiving no response to their concerns about parents' rights violations in the schools, Institute attorneys filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.

The Rutherford Institute was asked to intervene in the Fitchburg matter after being contacted by Arlene Tessitore, whose two daughters, in the seventh and eighth grades at Memorial Middle School in Fitchburg, Mass., were administered surveys at school asking overtly intimate and sexually suggestive questions without her knowledge or consent. Both girls were required to complete the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) at school, a survey which asks questions such as "Have you ever tried to kill yourself?", "Have you ever sniffed glue, or breathed the contents of spray cans, or inhaled any paints?", and "With how many people have you had sexual intercourse?" Tessitore's older daughter was also given the Youth Program Survey (YPS), which asks true/false questions about a student's beliefs about contraception ("I feel comfortable talking with any partner I have about using a condom") and sexual activity ("I have had oral sex at some point in my life").

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 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.