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C.N. v. RIDGEWOOD BOARD OF EDUCATION

June 3, 2004.

C.N., individually and as Guardian Ad Litem of J.N., a minor; L.M., individually and as Guardian Ad Litem of V.M., a minor and M.E., individually and as Guardian Ad Litem of J.E., a minor; Plaintiffs,
v.
RIDGEWOOD BOARD OF EDUCATION, FREDERICK J. STOKLEY, JOYCE SNIDER, RONALD VERDICCHIO, ROBERT WEAKLEY, JOHN MUCCIOLO, ANTHONY BENCIVENGA, and SHEILA BROGAN, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOSE LINARES, District Judge

AMENDED OPINION & ORDER (caption changed)

Plaintiffs, three parents who are acting on behalf of three minor students enrolled in the Ridgewood Public School System, brought this action seeking relief for alleged constitutional and statutory violations arising from the administration of a student survey in the Ridgewood schools. Defendants are the Ridgewood Board of Education and several school administrators, including Frederick J. Stokley (Superintendent of Schools), Joyce Snider (Assistant Superintendent), Ronald Verdicchio (Executive Director of Ridgewood Community School), Robert Weakley (Director of Human Resources), John Mucciolo (Ridgewood High School Principal), Anthony Bencivenga (Benjamin Franklin Middle School Principal), and Sheila Brogan (Board of Education President) (collectively, the "Defendants"). Presently before the Court is the motion for summary judgment by Defendants pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. The Court heard oral arguments on this motion on March 8, 2004. For the reasons set forth herein, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted in full.

  BACKGROUND

  In 1998, the Human Resources Coordinating Council ("HRCC") of the Village of Ridgewood, an organization comprised of public and private social service agencies, assembled a group of community members to assess the needs of local youth. The group concluded that it was important to survey Ridgewood's student population to better understand their needs, attitudes and behavior patterns in order to use the town's programs and resources more effectively. Throughout 1999, representatives of the group met with public bodies and citizen groups to publicize the survey and elicit public comments. The HRCC formed a "Vision Team" to oversee the project, comprised of thirty representatives from various sectors of the community, including a student from Ridgewood High School.

  In May 1999, Defendant Frederick Stokley, the Superintendent of Schools, notified all parents that the survey was to be administered in the fall, and explained the reasons for the survey. Around the same time, members of the Federated Home and School Association (the "Association"), a group composed of the presidents of the nine Ridgewood parent-teacher associations, held several meetings in which the student survey was discussed. Defendants Stokley and Brogan, as representatives of the school administration, attended these meetings. In June 1999, Defendant Verdicchio presented an overview of the survey to the Association and told its members that the individual parents' rights to refuse the administration of the survey to their children would be respected. (Pl. Appx, 109-10). Although denied by Defendants, Plaintiff C.N. claims that Defendants Stokley and Brogan promised that a written consent form would be required. (Pl. Aff., Ex. E; Dep. of C.N., 31) (Def. Resp. to Pl.'s St. of Material Facts, 2). On June 28, 1999, after a meeting of the Association, Brogan sent an email to Verdicchio stating that the "process of allowing children to opt out of participating in the survey must be part of the parental information." (Pl. Aff., Ex. I). The Association eventually passed a motion to support the administration of the survey. (Pl. Appx., 112).

  On September 1, 1999, Defendant Stokley sent another letter to the parents, in which he reiterated the purpose of the survey, and disclosed that "some survey items seek information about at-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, sexuality, stress and depression." He emphasized that the survey would be "voluntary and anonymous." (Pl. Appx., 128). Stokley also stated that a copy of the survey would be available for parental review in the main offices of both the middle schools and high schools. According to Stokley's deposition, approximately 15-20 parents came to review the survey following the letter. (Def. S.J. Mot., 16, n. 7).

  On October 4, 1999, Defendant Ronald Verdicchio, sent a letter to the principals of the administering schools, in which he included draft directions to their staff for the administration of the survey as follows:
Students should be informed that the survey is anonymous and voluntary. If a student elects not to complete the survey he/she should hand in the blank copy. If a person chooses not to answer a question, he/she should be instructed to leave the item blank. Students who choose not to take the survey should read or work quietly while others are completing the survey.
(Pl. Appx., 181).

  Verdicchio's letter told the principals that they should "[p]lease feel free (I know you will) to edit the directions as you choose." (Id.)

  As preparation for the survey continued, Defendant Mucciolo, Principal of Ridgewood High School, had numerous discussions with students, parents and teachers at Ridgewood High School, in which he informed them that the survey would be voluntary. (Pl. Aff., Ex. P; Dep. of Mucciolo, 48-49). Defendant Bencivenga, Principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School, also instructed his staff on several occasions in individual, group and full faculty conferences, that the survey was to be administered anonymously, confidentially and voluntarily. (Pl. Aff., Ex. Q; Dep. of Bencivenga, 69, 79-80). Defendant Brogan reiterated the assertion that the survey was always intended to be voluntary and that there was never any discussion about requiring students to take survey. (Pl. Aff., Ex. L; Dep. of Brogan, 51-52).

  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. The survey, designed by the Search Institute of Minneapolis, Minnesota, consisted of 156 questions encompassing a wide range of topics, including the student's relationship with his or her parents, the student's past criminal activity, alcohol and drug use, and sexual activity. The questions were intended to measure the strength of various attributes and experiences known to promote a healthy adolescence. The survey was designed to be completed anonymously, and the results were only to be presented in the aggregate. There was no space on the survey for a student's name or any way to trace answers to a particular student. The front cover of the survey instructed students that the "answers on this questionnaire will be kept strictly confidential. DO NOT put your name on this form. It has no code numbers, so no one will be able to find out how you or anyone else answered. . . . Therefore, no one will be able to connect your answers with your name." (Pl. Appx., 233).

  There is some disagreement as to precisely what occurred on the day of the survey. At least one of the students involved in this, V.M., has stated that her teacher told her that she was required to take and place her name on the survey. (Pl. Aff., Ex. S; Dep. of V.M., 102). At deposition, her teacher, James Grasso, admitted that although his recollection of the survey day was not very clear, he may have failed to tell his middle-school students that the survey was not required. (Pl. Aff., Ex. R; Dep. of Grasso, 59, 60, 71). J.E., another student involved in this suit, who took the survey in a different location, admitted that she was told the survey would be anonymous. (Pl. Aff, Ex. W, Dep. of J.E., 71). Her teacher specifically told the class that the survey was voluntary and not to put names on the survey. (Pl. Aff., Ex. U, Dep. of Guantez, 19, 26, 32). J.N., the final student involved in this case, asserts that students were told that they would be "cutting class" if they left the room during the administration of the survey. J.N. does not claim that the survey itself was mandatory. (Pl. Aff., Ex. X, Deposition of J.N., 166).

  After the survey was administered, the survey booklets were placed in a closed carton and immediately transported to the school district's administrative offices where they were secured in a locked office and sent to the Search Institute to tabulate the results. Upon tabulation, the Search Institute destroyed the individual test booklets in accordance with its standard record retention practice. The summarized results of the survey were eventually released to the public.

  On March 6, 2000, Plaintiffs filed the present action. Plaintiffs claimed that the survey violated their rights under the Family Educational Records Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g (FERPA) and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, 20 U.S.C. § 1232h (PPRA). Plaintiffs also asserted claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of the United States Constitution, namely, that the administration of the survey compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment; was an unreasonable intrusion into the household in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights of the adults to raise their children as they saw fit; contravened the right to privacy under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments; and violated the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

  On February 15, 2001, Judge Nicholas H. Politan, to whom this case was originally assigned, denied Plaintiffs' application for a preliminary injunction and granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment, thereby dismissing the case. C.N. v. Ridgewood Board of Education, 146 F. Supp.2d 528 (D.N.J. 2001). The court dismissed suit against the Board of Education because the "official policy of the Board was that the survey be administered voluntarily and anonymously" and any contrary actions by employees could not be characterized as the policy of the Board. Id. at 533. Moreover, the court found that the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the statutory and constitutional claims as a review of the case law at the time of their actions would not indicate that they were violating any of Plaintiffs' clearly established constitutional rights. Id. at 535. Judge Politan rejected Plaintiffs' First Amendment claim and found that the "compelled disclosure" cases offered by Plaintiffs were inapplicable as nothing was compelled by Defendants as a condition to some benefit. In addition, the court denied Plaintiffs' "unreasonable intrusion" and privacy claims under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments because the survey did not comprise an unconstitutional intrusion or privacy violation in light of its voluntary and anonymous nature. The court also rejected Plaintiffs' substantive due process claim concerning the right to direct the upbringing of children because there was "no injection by the defendants into the private realm of the family." Id. at 539. Finally, Judge Politan dismissed Plaintiffs' claims under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment right to self-incrimination because there was no possibility of incrimination based on the anonymity involved and the fact that the surveys were eventually destroyed. Id. at 540.

  On December 10, 2001 the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of the Fifth Amendment self-incrimination claim, but reversed the summary judgment decision on the remaining claims and remanded the case. C.N. v. Ridgewood Board of Education, No. 01-1637, slip op. (3d Cir. Dec. 10, 2001). The Third Circuit emphasized that summary judgment was premature without allowing Plaintiffs' further discovery on their claims. For example, the court stated that without further discovery, it was improper to conclude that it was not the Board's policy to require students to take the survey. Id. at 4. The Third Circuit noted that the record thus far presented a factual dispute as to whether students were required to take the survey, and if a jury could find that students were actually required to take the survey, then the District Court would have to address the question as to whether a teacher or principal would have reasonably understood that the survey was being administered in violation of the law. Id. at 6. Following remand, the parties consented to an order dismissing the PPRA and FERPA claims in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002).

  Discovery is now complete in this case. On this summary judgment motion, the Court must address Plaintiffs' remaining legal claims. The Court must consider: (1) whether Defendants compelled the speech of the students in violation of the First Amendment; (2) whether Defendants' actions constitute an unreasonable intrusion into the household in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; (3) whether Defendants violated the substantive due process rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit; and (4) whether Defendants violated the privacy rights of the students.*fn1 Upon allowing for discovery pursuant to the Third Circuit's directive, and upon thoroughly reviewing the complete record as well as the contentions of the parties at oral argument, the Court concludes that the Defendants did not violate Plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Accordingly, the Court grants ...


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