The Rutherford Institute
By John W. Whitehead
January 18, 2007
America’s schools are beginning to resemble laboratories, and our children are the lab rats. In almost every state across the nation, schoolchildren are being subjected to behavioral exams and mental health tests, often without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
One such program is the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). Currently used in at least 45 states, the YRBSS test takes approximately 35 minutes to complete, with questions on everything from how much television the student watches to thoughts on suicide, sexual activity and drug use. For example, the 2007 middle school questionnaire includes such questions as: “Have you ever seriously thought about killing yourself?” “Have you ever made a plan about killing yourself?” “Have you ever used marijuana?” “Have you ever used any form of cocaine, including powder, crack, or freebase?” “Have you ever had sexual intercourse?” “The last time you had sexual intercourse, did you or your partner use a condom?” “Have you ever sniffed glue, or breathed the contents of spray cans, or inhaled any paints or sprays to get high?” “Have you ever taken any diet pills, powders, or liquids without a doctor’s advice to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight?” “Have you ever vomited or taken laxatives to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight?”
First developed in 1990 by the Center for Disease Control, the test’s stated purpose is to track health risk behaviors among America’s youth. In this way, YRBSS is similar to other mental health screening programs that have been creeping into the classroom since President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health recommended mental health screenings for all school-aged children, including those in preschool. But if the goal is to identify and prevent risky behavior among young people, why are many parents up in arms over these tests?
There are several problems. First, there are concerns about how the tests are being administered. Health screening tests like YRBSS are often given to students without parental knowledge or consent. While the CDC insists that local parental permission procedures are followed prior to administering the test, many school systems use so-called passive parental notification procedures, which assume that parents have given their consent unless they notify the school of an objection. But passive notification is just a sneaky way to avoid obtaining written parental consent. And in the end, whether due to the child losing the notification form or forgetting to give it to the parents, parents are often left in the dark, unaware that their children are being subjected to such invasive tests.
Second, critics of these risk assessment tests insist that they’re aimed at pushing antidepressant drugs on teenagers. For example, TeenScreen, which is similar to YRBSS in its intent to identify suicidal tendencies and social disorders, has been labeled by the Alliance for Human Research Protection as a “duo-drug promotion scam” that declares “otherwise normal children to be mentally ill.” Another vocal critic of the tests, Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum, points out that drug companies are gearing up for bigger sales of antidepressants at the same time that the FDA is issuing warnings about antidepressants increasing the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children who take them.
Finally, legitimate questions remain about whether such tests really help students achieve healthier lifestyles. TeenScreen, for example, has an 84% false-positive rate. This means that 84% of teens diagnosed as having some sort of mental health or social disorder are, in fact, perfectly normal teenagers. Furthermore, although the CDC insists that there is no danger in asking students highly suggestive questions about sex, drugs and suicide, as a parent, I’d prefer to decide the timing and content of such a sensitive discussion.
Helping America’s teens make positive, healthy and responsible lifestyle choices is a worthy goal, but it must start with parents within the home. If the schools are to be part of the process, they must ensure that parents are fully informed and involved at every step of the way. In turn, parents should demand that they be notified about mental health evaluations and that the evaluations not be given unless they have provided express written permission, which is required under federal law. Parents should also be provided an advance copy of the screening questionnaire in order to make an informed decision about whether they want their child to be screened.
It’s time for parents to stand up for their rights. After all, it is still the job of parents—not the schools—to parent. Our children are counting on us.