On behalf of concerned parents, Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) is requesting a state investigation into illegal student surveys that violate the privacy of minors. SLF sent a letter to the Missouri Attorney General explaining that parents of students in the Webster Groves School District (WGSD) are concerned that WGSD and third-party vendors are illegally obtaining sensitive information about their children. These surveys collect data about students’ sexual behavior and attitudes, political beliefs, mental health status, and even the beliefs and mental health status of students’ family members and friends. The surveys appear to violate federal law, including the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA).
Federal law provides parents with the right to review all instructional materials, to access student records, and to keep student records private. It also places limits on what data schools can obtain from a survey. Schools cannot require a student to submit to any survey, analysis, or evaluation that reveals information about topics like students’ political affiliations or beliefs, mental or psychological problems of the students or students’ families, students’ sex behavior or attitudes, or religious affiliations and beliefs, among others.
But WGSD is doing exactly that. It requires students to take surveys that “determine your political party preference,” and include questions about gay marriage, immigration, abortion, school prayer, and the death penalty. Students are also given surveys and asked about their views on government funding of Planned Parenthood, abortion, and health insurance coverage for birth control.
WGSD requires students to take surveys about their personal sexuality and gender identity that specifically ask if they are transgender or non-binary. Students as young as second grade are required to fill out a “My Identity Journal” where they are asked about their racial identity and comfort level with persons of other races. And WGSD requires high school students to take an advisory class where they take weekly surveys on their own mental health and that of their families. Sample survey questions include, “I am aware of and comfortable with my cultural, racial, and personal identity,” “My family supports me in my academic and personal life,” and “I feel supported by my family.”
WGSD has contracted with third party vendors like Panorama Education, Inc., and Project Wayfinder to create these surveys and to collect students’ deeply personal responses. The use of these third-party vendors causes WGSD parents serious concern, especially because Panorama has a visible political affiliation that only exacerbates their concerns: it was co-founded by the son-in-law of Attorney General Merrick Garland, the same official who instructed the FBI to investigate parents at school board meetings.
Under Missouri state law, the Attorney General has the authority to investigate potential violations of federal privacy laws. In its letter, SLF requested that the Attorney General investigate WGSD, the Missouri State Board of Education, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and vendors like Panorama and Project Wayfinder to whom the school district outsourced the invasive surveys.