America’s Schoolchildren Are Treated Like Lab Rats
By John W. Whitehead

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.

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