TRENTON – Schools wouldn’t need permission from parents to conduct anonymous student surveys about health topics such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, vaping and sexual behavior, under a bill now one vote from Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.

Currently, parents or legal guardians must actively grant permission for their kids to take part in such surveys. A bill, A5597/S3801, would flip that opt-in approach to an opt-out one in which parents would get a letter, email or form and have two weeks to decline a student’s participation in a survey.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said so few students are taking part in health surveys that the state Department of Education can’t obtain a representative sample.

“By improving our dataset, by having an opt-out rather than an opt-in procedure, we look to see better laws and measures to combat the things which lead to poor health and bad outcomes,” Conaway said.

Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said surveys can yield important, useful data but that school leaders also want to maintain parents’ trust by keeping an opt-in approach.

“Our members really felt that moving to passive parental permission could give the appearance of even being deceptive,” Lamon said. “And our members expressed a concern that parents might feel as though the districts were trying to be sneaky or operate behind the backs of parents.”

Lamon said a study of student behavior surveys by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found most parents didn’t remember seeing the forms notifying them of the survey and overestimated whether they had returned it.

“The study really reinforced the important point that passive consent is often not consent at all,” Lamon said. “And the subject matter of the surveys referenced in this bill are really high-stakes topics for our students. It could put school leaders in a difficult position and risk violating the confidence and trust of our school community.”

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said he doesn’t think the proposal infringes anyone’s rights, as districts don’t have to adopt the change and parents can opt out. He said the problem is that data currently is “woefully inadequate.”

“Some parents – not all, but probably a minority – may not believe that their child is engaged in any kind of risky behavior. No one wants to think that. No kid before the age of 18 ever has sex or drinks a beer or smokes a cigarette. But we know that that’s just not true,” Vitale said.

“And so, the information that we get is sometimes skewed, and we just don’t really look at it at all,” he said. “As a matter of policy, I don’t think that this drives a wedge between families and their educators. Again, it gives a school district an opportunity to opt into this. If they choose not to, they don’t have to. No one is requiring them to do so.”

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Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, said the relationship between parents and school leaders has been fractured over the past year during the pandemic and conflicting advice from the state, creating an adversarial relationship that will take years to heal – and that opt-out health surveys will worsen it.

“I think that we’re just adding to that level of distrust that right now we need to try to bring back together for our schools and our parents,” Schepisi said.

The Assembly approved the bill in a 48-28 vote on May 20. The Senate health committee endorsed it Thursday, positioning it for full Senate approval later in June.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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