December 26, 2001
Many parents assume that the tests given to their children in
public school are only for educational purposes. To the contrary,
schools increasingly demand that students answer nosy questions
unrelated to academics.
That practice may soon end due to a federal appellate decision
issued last week in C.N. v. Ridgewood Board of Education. The Court
held against the Ridgewood (NJ) school district's use of an intrusive
The Ridgewood public schools asked their students highly offensive
questions, most having no academic connection. Young pupils were
confronted with a 156-question survey about sex, drugs, suicide, and
other personal matters.
Question 108 was this: "How many times, if any, in the last 12
months have you used LSD (`acid')?" The acceptable answers were "0";
"1"; "2"; "3-5"; "6-9"; "10-19"; "20-39"; "40+".
Question 101 was: "Have you ever tried to kill yourself?"
Acceptable answers were "No"; "Yes, once"; "Yes, twice"; "Yes, more
than two times".
The questionnaire asked students to incriminate themselves by
saying how many times they had "stolen something from a store"
(question 56); "damaged property just for fun (such as breaking
windows, scratching a car, putting paint on walls, etc.)" (question
59); used heroin, opium, morphine, alawan, PCP or Angel Dust (questions
Students as young as 12 years old were told to take this survey
under the assurance of anonymity. The unmistakable impression conveyed
to the students was that illegal and immoral conduct is rampant among
our youth and probably normal.
The questionnaire embraced a relativistic, rather than a
principled, approach to social problems. Its implicit message was that
the issue is not whether certain behavior is wrong, but how frequently
Using tests or questions to shape attitudes is nothing new to
politicians. Misleading "push polling" of voters is a well-known
campaign technique, and brainwashing tests in school by totalitarian
regimes have been well documented.
Because federal funds were involved with the Ridgewood test, the
Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment applied. That federal law
requires prior written parental consent before telling children to
answer questions about sexual or illegal behavior, or mental or
psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student or his
The Ridgewood questionnaire asked students such questions without
the prior written consent of their parents. The school administered
the survey as though it were a test given during a compulsory classroom
period, with every single student participating.
Several parents, shocked that such a test was given without their
knowledge or consent, sued the school district in federal court. This
test was not what they sent their children to school for, and their
right to withhold consent from this questionnaire was violated.
The district court predictably sided with the school, even
embracing the school's claim that it was doing a "good deed." The
court could not explain, however, why it was a "good deed" to ask
12-year-olds about suicide over the objections of their parents.
The parents appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. This
month it ruled unanimously in favor of the parents.
It reversed the district court's decision that the survey was
merely voluntary. "The circumstances that surrounded the
administration of the survey were -- given the nature of the school
setting -- sufficient to infer that . . . students were required to
take the survey."
The record revealed that one principal told the students to "take
it seriously," an ironic command, given the survey's questions and
skewed choice of answers. Affidavits from students confirmed that,
contrary to the school district's claim, the survey was given in a
The Supreme Court has held that local governmental units, such as
public schools, are liable for rights violations. The Ridgewood Board
of Education could be liable for giving the survey if Board policy
required students to take it without prior parental written consent.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the parents that the school's
administration of the questionnaire may have violated the First
Amendment's prohibition against compelled speech, and the Fourth
Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable intrusion into the
The Court also agreed with the parents that the Board may have
violated "the substantive due process rights for the adults to raise
their children as guaranteed by the Fifth" Amendment. That right is of
paramount importance to another New Jersey parent, who is currently
suing his child's school over its admission requirement that all
children be given the controversial hepatitis B vaccine.
Why aren't school officials spending class time to improve
students' academic achievements? Instead of asking students if they
have taken LSD more than 40 times, how about asking them if they know
what is 40 times 40?