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Bill Would Restrict Marketing in Schools

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, has introduced legislation designed to protect student privacy and address commercialism and marketing in the classroom.

The bill, known as the Student Privacy Protection Act, or S. 290, would require public school districts receiving federal aid to adopt policies that require parental consent before information can be collected for commercial purposes from students younger than 18. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL.

“More and more, schools are being perceived not just as centers for learning but centers for consumer research,” said Dodd, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus. “Our children should be instilled with knowledge, not tapped for information on their spending habits. Their privacy and that of their parents should be respected, not exploited.”

The measure, introduced earlier this month, would not ban advertising but would require a market researcher to obtain a parent's permission before asking a student to provide personal information.

Besides requiring a parent's or guardian's written permission for a child to participate in a survey, the bill also would require school officials to tell parents in writing what information is being sought and why; what it would be used for; and whether there is any personally identifiable information.

Dodd said resource constraints have forced many schools to turn to corporations to supplement resources, provide new equipment and sponsor student activities.

“As a result, classrooms, which should be centers for learning, are increasingly being turned into centers for consumer research, where sensitive, private information on students and their families is being collected under the guise of education,” he said.

Dodd cited an example of elementary school students in New Jersey who filled out a 27-page booklet called “My All About Me Journal” as part of a marketing survey for a cable television channel.

In another case, he said, a technology firm provided schools with free computers and Internet access but monitored students' Web activity by age, gender and ZIP code. Children in a Massachusetts school did a cereal taste test and answered an opinion poll.

At the request of Dodd and Rep. George Miller, D-CA, the General Accounting Office issued a report in September on commercial activities in schools.

The GAO report cited the concerns of education officials that schools are not appropriate venues for market research and indicated that numerous organizations and advocacy groups think market research in the classroom is a “growing phenomenon.” The report found no comprehensive policies, laws or regulations at the federal, state or local level addressing commercial activities in schools. Under the Student Privacy Protection Act, parents would be able to decide whether their children participate in market research.

The bill is similar to a measure that former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman conditionally vetoed last month. That bill would have required schools to obtain written parental permission at least two weeks before a student could participate in a survey, regardless of the purpose or sponsor.

The legislation would have prohibited New Jersey schools from administering any academic or nonacademic survey without obtaining parental consent if it would reveal political affiliations, Social Security numbers, drug history, a family's financial status, illegal or antisocial behavior that may exist in the family, mental or psychological problems or sexual behavior. It also would have protected other “legally recognized privileged” relationships, such as those with the clergy, doctors and lawyers. Schools violating the measure could have been fined at the discretion of the state's commissioner of education.

Whitman, who is now the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in a veto message to the Legislature last month that the bill did not comply with federal law. Whitman recommended that it be changed to require a parent's or guardian's written permission to participate in a survey only if the survey deals with sensitive personal and family issues.

She also recommended that the measure be amended to require school authorities to provide parents with a detailed note about the survey, explaining why the information is needed, what it is to be used for and how parents can refuse to allow their children to participate.

The New Jersey Assembly approved the bill last summer. It was introduced in May by Assemblymen E. Scott Garrett and Guy F. Talarico. The assemblymen are looking into Whitman's objections and may reintroduce the bill.

Reportedly, Dodd incorporated many of the changes Whitman recommended into his bill.

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