Several Ocean Township parents have filed a lawsuit against the local school district for what they say is illegally administering a survey to sixth, ninth and twelfth-grade students that ask detailed questions about their sexual behavior and attitudes, mental and psychological problems, and other personal questions without parental consent.
The lawsuit was filed on Tuesday, Jan. 6, with state Commissioner of Education David Hespe against the Ocean Township Board of Education. Petitioners in the law suit include Michelle Green, Jack Green IV, Danielle Sintic, Lexa Skowrenski and Christana Kmecz – all with children in the school district.
School Superintendent James Stefankiewicz said on Tuesday that the school board just received the information contained in the lawsuit and that the matter will be reviewed by the school board attorney.
“So we cannot comment (on the lawsuit) at this point,” he said.
He did say, however, that both school and human services professionals work on the survey in question and that results are put to good use.
“The information is used to develop important programs that are used to help the children of Ocean Township,” he said.
On Oct. 21, 2014 the school board passed a resolution authorizing the administration of an “Attitudes and Behaviors Survey” to sixth, ninth and twelfth grade students.
Prior to Nov. 14, the school board sent an “Opt A Pupil Out Notice” to parents and legal guardians. James T. Hundley, the Ocean Grove-based attorney representing the petitioners, said that out of about 300 notices sent out, only 39 were returned.
“And just because the others were not returned does not mean the parents have given their consent,” he said.
On Nov. 14 the “Attitudes and Behaviors Survey’ was given to all sixth-grade students in the district whose parents did not return the opt-out notice. Thus far, the survey has not been administered to ninth-and twelfth-grade students.
The survey requests students reveal information on mental or psychological problems that are potentially embarrassing to the students or their families; their sexual behavior and attitudes; and on illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating and demeaning behavior.
The lawsuit contends the school board acted illegally by not receiving prior written informed consent from a parent or legal guardian at least two weeks in advance of the survey, as required by state law, or by administering the survey to children whose parents did not return the opt-out notice.
“New Jersey law says you cannot give a student a survey like this, that asks these specific questions, unless you have prior written consent of parents,” Hundley said.
The suit also contends that the school district did not make the survey available for viewing a various school sites attended by the sixth-graders who took the survey, which is also required by state law.
The lawsuit seeks to have the surveys that were administered destroyed and have the board reveal any outside agencies or persons to whom the survey results were distributed.
Green, one of the petitioners who has a son in sixth grade at the Ocean Township Intermediate School, said she and some other parents went to look at the survey at the school after they received the opt-out letter but that the survey was not available as required by law. Instead, they had to go to the main school board offices, on Monmouth Road, where they were allowed to look at the survey but only under supervision so they could not photograph or copy the document.
She said the opt-out letter sent to parents is vague and that a lot of parents merely discard them.
“The kinds of questions they are asking are weird and disturbing to me and very inappropriate for a sixth-grader. They need to put some of these questions in the opt-out letter so parents know what they are dealing with and what kind of questions they are putting in front of their children. I think a lot of parents would opt out if they knew what kinds of questions are being asked,” she said.
Green cited various questions on the survey: like asking how students feel about teenage sexual intercourse and what types of birth control they use, their sexual orientation, when was the last time a student was bruised by a parent, or do they carry a gun or knife.
Questions also ask when a student last used drugs and what kind, whether they gamble, or have tried to commit suicide
“One question asks when was the last time you drank alcohol and drove a car, which is totally inappropriate to ask a sixth-grader. My son is 11 years old and he doesn’t even know about any of this stuff yet,” Green said.
“My son can’t even take a field trip without my written consent yet the school district can just go ahead and ask questions like this? The process is flawed and there is no place for this without written consent of the parents,” she said.
Green said she hopes the law suit makes the school district “go the extra mile” to comply with the state statutes and better inform parents about what is contained in the survey.
She said that Monmouth County Executive Superintendent of Schools Joseph Passiment Jr. said there are other less personally-intrusive surveys that younger students can take that are prepared by the state.
“He said that other surveys are available that leave out the sex and drugs,” she said.
“I also hope the lawsuit can prevent young children from having to go through this. The survey only upsets the children and their parents. The kids think it’s weird and, if we don’t speak up as parents, then the school assumes they can do anything they want with our kids- and we want them know they can’t,” she said.