The distribution of a survey to Mt. Ararat Middle School students appears to have violated federal law and the district’s own policy.

The anonymous survey was distributed to students as part of a diversity project by the school’s civil rights team.

However, the survey was sent without prior parental notification, violating the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Act, according to Tom Hutton, the interim director of the Education Law Association, a group that provides information on legal issues in education.

Hutton said Thursday that any school district that receives federal funding is required to incorporate Protection of Pupil Rights Act in its policies. Specifically, the law, in part, requires schools to notify parents in advance of a survey that asks about certain sensitive topics. It also gives parents the right to inspect the survey and opt out.

Because the survey asked about sexual orientation and religious practices, “it would appear this survey ran afoul of the (Protection of Pupil Rights Act) requirements, assuming parents had no notice of it,” Hutton said.

“As a parent, I am extremely disturbed when a survey is passed out to my sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grade student asking for information that includes race, religion, sexual identity, gender information, that is material nonpublic information,” Jason MacDonald, the parent of a seventh-grader, told the Maine School Administrative District 75 school board on Feb. 2.

MacDonald said he would sue the district if his child such as survey was sent out again.

In a letter to parents Feb. 22, Interim Superintendent Robert Lucy said the district didn’t follow its own policy regarding student surveys. The policy requires that parents or guardians be given prior notice of any survey “collecting certain types of information before it is sent to students” so they have the opportunity to review and opt-out.

According to the letter, surveys funded by the U.S. Department of Education require prior notice and written consent from parents when they deal with topics including sexual behavior and attitudes and religious practices, affiliations or beliefs of the student or the student’s parents.

“We didn’t follow our policy,” Lucy told the school board. “Some elements were not followed. We apologized for that. We put in action strategies to ensure that we don’t have those situations happen again where we’re not following our own policy.”

Board member Alison Hawkes argued that the survey violated district policy and federal law and “is not a little slip-up.”

“This is a big deal to parents and a big deal to kids who did not understand the questions being asked of them,” Hawkes said

Lucy said moving forward, any survey has to be cleared by the district administration so the district can make sure it is adhering to school policy and that the survey is appropriate.

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