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Education Reporter

School Flouts Parental Consent
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Memorial Middle School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts recently conducted a survey asking students intrusive questions about sex, suicide, and illegal drugs without written permission from their parents. Arlene Tessitore has two daughters enrolled at the Fitchburg school in the seventh and eighth grades who were made to complete the survey. She was upset about the survey's probing and inappropriate contents and that she was given no notice that her children would be told to complete it, and so she contacted the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, for legal help.

The survey, called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), was created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC provides funding for the YRBS to be administered through local social service agencies in 47 states. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's website states that "the YRBS focuses on the major risk behaviors that threaten the health and safety of young people."

The questions on the survey, however, require and give out more information than what is strictly pertinent and necessary for a middle school health survey. The section on sexual behavior asks questions such as, "Which of the following best describes you? A. Heterosexual (straight) B. Gay or lesbian C. Bisexual D. Not sure," and "During your life, with whom have you had sexual contact? A. I have never had sexual contact B. Females C. Males D. Females and males." Another question asks, "The last time you had sexual intercourse, did you or your partner use a condom?"

Beyond being explicit, the YRBS suggests answers to the student in a way that makes each seem equally appropriate and desirable. Other questions give students age-inappropriate information just by reading the answers. "The last time you had sexual intercourse, what one method did you or your partner use to prevent pregnancy? A. I have never had sexual intercourse. B. No method was used to prevent pregnancy. C. Birth control pills D. Condoms E. Depo-Provera (or any injectable birth control), Nuva Ring (or any birth control ring), Implanon (or any implant), or any IUD F. Withdrawal G. Some other method H. Not sure."

Kids not yet exposed to illicit drugs or other poor health choices were made to answer questions such as, "During your life, how many times have you used methamphetamines (also called speed, crystal, crank, or ice)?" and, "During the past 30 days, did you vomit or take laxatives to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight?" Another question asked, "During the past 30 days, how many times did you sniff glue, breathe the contents of aerosol spray cans, or inhale any paints or sprays to get high?"

These are the kinds of questions that parents should be able to protect their children from. However, some parents, such as Arlene Tessitore, were not given that opportunity. Schools often fail to notify or gain permission to conduct the survey even though it is theoretically required by the CDC. In a document entitled, "Conducting Your Own YRBS" the CDC explains, "You also should obtain parent permission for students to participate. Two approaches to securing parental permission are available. Active parental permission means that you collect a signature from each parent authorizing the student's participation. A student is not allowed to take part in the YRBS unless a parent has returned a signed form indicating their approval of their student's participation in the survey. Only students whose parents have provided written approval in this manner can participate in the survey. Passive permission means that students are excluded from the survey only when a parent returns a signed form denying permission."

According to federal law however, passive permission is insufficient. The Protection of Pupil Rights amendment allows parents to protect their children's privacy. It states that "no student shall be required, as part of any applicable program, to submit to a survey, analysis, or evaluation that reveals information concerning . . . mental or psychological problems of the student or the student's family; sex behavior or attitudes; illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior . . . without the prior written consent of the parent."

The questions on the YRBS fall directly into the categories requiring "written consent of the parent." According to Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead, "passive notification is merely a surreptitious way to avoid obtaining written parental consent. And in the end, whether due to the child losing the notification form or forgetting to give it to the parents, parents are often left in the dark, unaware that their children are being subjected to such invasive tests."

Yet the CDC suggests in "Conducting Your Own YRBS" that schools use passive permission because, "active parental permission typically requires more time and resources and may reduce the number of students who participate in the survey." According to the Rutherford Institute, a representative from the local agency administering the YRBS at Memorial Middle School said that the agency requires a 98% participation rate to continue receiving federal funding. The CDC states "as a general rule, expect the use of active parental permission to reduce student response rates by about 50 percent unless you implement extraordinary follow up procedures." Perhaps this is why the Protection of Pupil Rights amendment and parental rights in general have been misused and ignored. Schools know that if active parental consent is required they will lose participation and federal funding partly because many informed parents would not want their children to be exposed to the YRBS or because they never saw the permission form.

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