Parents' Lawsuit Over Sex, Drug Survey Breathing New Life

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - Some Ridgewood, N.J. parents who sued their local school district over a survey that asked children as young as 12 blunt questions about suicide, sex and drugs now hope to go to trial in 2002 after a federal appeals court recently reinstated their case.

The 156-question survey designed by a non-profit research organization called Search-Institute was designed to help students "make healthy choices and avoid a wide range of high-risk behaviors."

However, the survey entitled "Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behavior" included questions that outraged the Ridgewood parents. Their children -- ages 12-18, in 7th through 12th grades -- were asked about their sexual habits, drug use and criminal activity.

The questions posed to the approximately 2,000 Ridgewood students in the fall of 1999 included the following: "Have you ever tried to kill yourself?" "Do you use heroin, morphine or opium?" and "When you have sex, how often do you use a birth control method?"

Acting on parents' complaints, the conservative Rutherford Institute filed a lawsuit on March 6, 2000, against the Ridgewood School District.

In February of this year, a U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey dismissed the parents' case, however, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia reinstated the lawsuit last week.

The suit claims the children were never informed that the controversial survey was voluntary. This, the parents claim, is a violation of their rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Family Education Records Privacy Act and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment.

"We contest that, we disagree with that," said Ridgewood School District Superintendent Dr. Frederick Stokley. He said he issued two "very explicit" notices to parents telling them about the survey.

Stokley said he sent a letter to parents in the spring of 1999 stating the content of the survey and that it would be asking questions regarding substance abuse, sexual behavior "and a range of other topics." He said a second letter sent in September of 1999 stated that the survey would be "voluntary and anonymous."

Federal funds used for survey

The Ridgewood Board of Education used a $5,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to purchase approximately 2,000 surveys from the Minneapolis-based Search-Institute.

Stokley explained that the school system had federal money available for "this type of activity." He also noted that the New Jersey Department of Education authorized the survey, "and it was a legitimate use of the funds."

Stokley also insists the principals of the three schools taking part in the survey, received instructions that "the test was to be administered in an anonymous and voluntary method."

But, Steve Aden, the Chief Litigation Counsel for the Rutherford Institute, claims parents were never informed that the survey was voluntary before it was administered.

Aden said Stokley's directions regarding the survey weren't clear. He said the school assumed students would realize the survey was voluntary "then opt themselves out."

Stokley noted the survey was available for inspection by parents for at least two weeks before it was handed to students. However, he said, only 15 or 20 parents took the opportunity to look it over.

He also said the three plaintiffs represented by the Rutherford Institute only came forward with their grievances after the survey had already been administered to their children.

"They admit that these directives were given. They're claiming that, however, when it was actually given, it was not voluntary," Stokley said.

In its Dec. 11 ruling against the Ridgewood School District, the appeals court in Philadelphia said parents are entitled to a new discovery period in order to collect sworn statements from students, school board members, school officials and even the administrator who proctored a portion of the exam.

Aden estimates a trial will occur in mid- to late 2002.