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C.N. v. RIDGEWOOD BOARD OF EDUCATION

February 15, 2001

C.N., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM OF J.N., ET AL.,
v.
RIDGEWOOD BOARD OF EDUCATION, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nicholas H. Politan, United States District Judge

THE ORIGINAL OF THIS LETTER OPINION IS ON FILE WITH THE CLERK OF THE COURT

Dear Counsel:

This matter comes before the Court on the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and the defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Court heard oral argument on September 18, 2000. For the reasons explained below, the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction is DENIED, and the defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED. This case is now CLOSED.

BACKGROUND

It is said that no good deed goes unpunished, or, at least in this case, unlitigated. The plaintiffs in this action, all residents of the Village of Ridgewood, are the parents of three minor girls who attend Ridgewood public schools. C.N. is the mother of plaintiff J.N., age 15; L.M. is the mother of plaintiff V.M., age 12; and M.E. is the mother of plaintiff J.E., age 17.*fn1 At the time the events surrounding this action occurred, J.N. and J.E. were students at Ridgewood High School and V.M. was a student at the Benjamin Franklin Middle School. Defendants are the Ridgewood Board of Education and several school administrators, including Frederick J. Stokley, Superintendent of schools; Joyce Snider, Assistant Superintendent; Ronald Verdicchio, member of the central administration; Robert Weakley, Director of Human Resources; John Mucciolo, Ridgewood High School Principal; Anthony Bencivenga, Benjamin Franklin Middle School Principal; and Sheila Brogan, President of the Board of Education.

In September 1998, an organization called the Human Resources Coordinating Council ("HRCC") in Ridgewood, which is comprised of public and private social service agencies, assembled a group of community members whose purpose was to assess the needs and interests of Ridgewood's youth. The group concluded that it was necessary for Ridgewood to survey the student population to gain insight into the needs, attitudes, and behavior patterns of the town's youth.*fn2 The group met with public organizations and private citizens throughout 1999 and elicited comment regarding the survey. The HRCC created a "Vision Team" to supervise the project, which included thirty persons from every sector of the community, including school officials and one student. Prior to the culmination of the 1998-99 school year, the Superintendent, Frederick J. Stokley, notified all parents in May 1999 that the survey would be administered in the fall of 1999, and stated the reasons behind the survey. On September 1, 1999, Superintendent Stokley again notified all parents of the survey and advised that the survey was voluntary and anonymous.

The survey itself is fairly extensive but apparently was to be filled out anonymously. There is no space for a student's name or a code, and students were instructed not to place their names or make any distinguishing marks on the paper.*fn3 The survey, produced by the Search Institute of Minneapolis, Minnesota, consisted of 156 questions. Students answered each question by using a pencil to fill the circle which corresponded to the appropriate answer, such as "Strongly Agree," "Agree," "Not Sure," "Disagree," or "Strongly Disagree." Some of these questions included the following:

40. I get along well with my parents.

43. If I break one of my parent's rules, I usually get punished.

45. It is against my values to have sex while I am a teenager.

Other questions asked the students whether they had, in the past twelve months, engaged in certain activities. A student responded to these questions by similarly filling a circle corresponding to the appropriate answer, such as "Never," "Once," "Twice," "3-4 Times," or "5 or More Times." These questions included some of the following:

56. Stolen something from a store.

57. Gotten into trouble with the police.

58. Hit or beat up someone.

59. Damaged property just for fun (such as breaking windows, scratching a car, putting paint on walls, etc.).

Still other questions asked students how many times over the last two weeks they had imbibed alcohol, specific types of drugs, or had driven a vehicle after drinking alcohol. Further areas covered by the survey included violent and criminal behavior and sexual activity and proclivities.

The survey was administered to students at the Benjamin Franklin Middle School on October 13, 1999, and to students at the Ridgewood High School on November 2, 1999. On March 6, 2000, plaintiffs brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a deprivation of rights secured by the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, the Family Educational Records Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g ("FERPA"), and the Protection of Pupils Rights Amendment, 20 U.S.C. § 1232h ("PPRA"). The plaintiffs argue that the survey was highly invasive of the students' privacy and that the Board did not properly and adequately notify the parents and the students that the survey was voluntary and anonymous. Specifically, plaintiffs complain that the Board did not obtain written consent from the parent and/or parents of each student.

Additionally, plaintiffs allege that prior to the administration of the survey the defendants failed to notify parents as to how and when the survey would be administered, how students could elect not to participate, how nonparticipating students would be accommodated, whether parental consent would be required before their child could take the survey, whether parents had a right to object to their child taking the survey, how parents could object to their child ...


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