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Lawsuit Against P-H-M Going to Trial

Original article available here.

SOUTH BEND -- A lawsuit against the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp. involving a controversial mental health screening no longer practiced there will proceed to trial, according to a federal court judge's ruling this week.

The case dates back to 2005 when Teresa and Michael Rhoades sued the school corporation and Madison Center for subjecting their daughter, Chelsea Rhoades, to a mental health evaluation without their knowledge or consent.

Chelsea was 15 and a sophomore at Penn High School at the time she was asked to provide answers to a series of personal yes or no questions that a Madison Center employee allegedly used to tell her she suffered from two mental health problems. Chelsea also was allegedly told that her mother should seek treatment for her at Madison Center should her condition worsen.

The questionnaire that Chelsea answered was part of the TeenScreen examination instituted at several St. Joseph County schools in 2004 as a suicide prevention program used to identify anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other problems in teens. It had both been praised and criticized nationally and locally.

The lawsuit that was filed on behalf of the Rhoadeses and that is now going to trial alleges that, in failing to seek the consent of Chelsea's parents before evaluating their daughter, the school corporation violated their constitutional rights to be free from unnecessary intrusions by the state.

The school had sought "passive consent" from parents by asking them to reply in writing if they did not wish their child to participate in the screening. But the Rhoadeses say they never received such a letter from the school.

John R. Price, an Indianapolis attorney who represents the Rhoadeses, said the lawsuit, in addition to monetary damages, seeks to make it clear to the schools that they must request proper parental consent before engaging a child in programs like mental health screening.

Price said he did not know how much money might be awarded should the lawsuit be successful.

But he said the decision -- by U.S. District Court Judge James T. Moody of the Northern District of Indiana -- denying the school corporation's request for the lawsuit's dismissal and proceeding to trial was an indication that the Rhoadeses' case is "on solid ground legally."

John W. Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Rhoadeses, said in a press release Wednesday, "This ruling rightly recognizes that parents have an intrinsic right to control their children's education, as well as safeguard their mental and physical well-being."

The Rhoadeses could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Teresa Carroll, a spokeswoman for P-H-M schools, said TeenScreen no longer is in use by the school corporation but could not provide additional information or comment for this story when reached late Wednesday afternoon.

A spokesman for Madison Center could not be reached for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

According to court documents, a pretrial conference is to be scheduled at the "earliest convenience" to set a date for trial.


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