FITCHBURG, Mass.—With the assistance of The Rutherford Institute, the mother of two students in the public schools has filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education over a Massachusetts school district’s practice of requiring students to complete surveys asking overtly intimate and sexually suggestive questions without their parents’ knowledge or written consent. The complaint alleges that Memorial Middle School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, has acted in violation of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) by using a “passive” parental consent procedure rather than obtaining actual written consent as required by the federal law and asks that the practice be stopped altogether. In an effort to ensure that written parental consent is obtained before students are even asked to participate in voluntary surveys on sensitive topics, The Rutherford Institute has also submitted policy language to the Fitchburg City School Committee for its consideration.
“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, intrusive and sexually suggestive 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.”
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.
Nisha N. Mohammed is the press contact for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal and educational civil liberties organization which provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.
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