Indiana University Bloomington

About "Parental Consent"

During the last few years, there has been extensive discussion and debate, both in Congress and in the Indiana General Assembly, about the issues of "parental consent" and so-called "survey abuse".   Legislation was adopted at both the state and federal level to assure the student's right to privacy, and to prohibit certain abuses of student and parental rights.  In each legislative debate, the proposed laws were modified after public hearings, in an attempt to reach a compromise that would protect students and parents, but still allow legitimate surveys to continue.  Our representatives were involved in these hearings and worked with the legislators to come to a compromise that would allow our Indiana Youth Survey to continue.  The result was the insertion of wording in both laws that stated that students could not be required to participate in certain surveys without written parental consent.  Participation in our survey is voluntary and students can opt out of participation.

The federal law, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's guidelines that implement it, clearly exempt voluntary and confidential surveys such as the Indiana Youth Survey.  We recognize that not all parties to the debate agree on this point.  The Indiana law also exempts surveys that are directly related to curricular instruction.  Both Indiana and federal laws require that schools design their prevention curricula based upon local data.  Our experts believe that this adequately links the survey to curricular instruction.  Schools should follow their school board's rules, and the advice of their own attorneys.  We cannot provide legal advice.

We are not opposed to written parental consent, per se, but oppose the requirement because it has the potential for compromising the validity of the sample of participating students.  Over the past five years, we have been getting voluntary consent to participate in our surveys from more than 90% of eligible students.  If the requirement for written parental consent is imposed, the survey participation rate would drop dramatically (White, Hill, & Effendi, 2004).  Lack of written consent may be due to a number of factors, including parental inability to read and write, parental absence from the home, failure of students to take forms home or to return them, parental confusion or misinformation about the need for a non-drug-using student to participate, or simple forgetfulness.  Lack of written parental consent rarely comes from a willful decision on the part of a parent to exclude their son or daughter from participation (Jelsma, Burgess, & Henley, 2012). Students from at-risk environments are somewhat less likely to return parental consent forms for the reasons stated above (Shaw, Cross, Thomas, & Zubrick 2015). Therefore the requirement for active written parental consent is likely to exclude a disproportionate share of a population most likely to use certain drugs.  This would result in a diminishment in the validity of the sample.

The supports parental notification, and the right of parents to inspect survey forms in advance and to exclude their sons and daughters if they wish to do so.  Based upon our extensive experience, only a handful of parents in the typical school are concerned about this issue.  Students from those families can easily opt out of participating in the Indiana Youth Survey without affecting its validity.

Our Recommendations

  1. Schools should follow the guidelines approved by their school boards, and should follow the advice given by their own attorneys. If necessary, school boards may modify their guidelines to clarify how those guidelines apply to voluntary and anonymous surveys.
  2. If the local guidelines permit, and if the local school believes it is necessary and/or appropriate, advance parental notification of the survey may be made. This notification should stress: (1) the fact that the survey is completely anonymous and completed in private, without any personally identifiable information that could be traced to an individual student, (2) the fact that participation is voluntary and that students can easily "opt out" of participation by submitting a blank survey form, (3) the need for non-drug-using students to participate to make sure that we produce accurate estimates of the percentages of students who do use, and (4) offer an opportunity for parents to inspect the forms.
  3. If local guidelines require written parental consent, we will need information about the school's plan for obtaining that consent. We need to be assured that data will be collected from an adequate and representative sample of eligible students. Schools MUST have in hand signed parental consent forms from at least 90% of eligible students before we will ship forms to the schools.


  • Anderman C, Cheadle A, Curry S, Diehr P, Shultz L, Wagner E. Selection bias related to parental consent in school-based survey research. Evaluation Review. 1995;19:663-674.
  • Chabot C, Shoveller JA, Spencer G, Johnson JL. Ethical and epistemological insights: A case study of participatory action research with young people. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics. 2012;7:20-33.
  • Dent C, Galaif J, Sussman S, Burtun D, Flay B. Demographic, psychosocial and behavioral differences in samples of actively and passively consented adolescents. Addictive Behaviors. 1993;28:51-56.
  • Dent CW, Sussman SY, Stacy AW. The impact of a written parental consent policy on estimates from a school-based drug use survey. Evaluation Review. 1997;21:698-712.
  • Eaton DK, Lowry R, Brener ND, Grunbaum JA, Kann L. Passive versus active parental permission in school-based survey research: Does the type of permission affect prevalence estimates of risk behaviors? Evaluation Review. 2004;28:564-577.
  • Ellickson PL, Hawes JA. An assessment of active versus passive methods for obtaining parental consent. Evaluation Review. 1989;13:45-55.
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  • Jelsma, J., Burgess, T., & Henley, L. (2012). Does the requirement of getting active consent from parents in school-based research result in a biased sample? An empirical study. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 7(5), 56–62. DOI : 10.1525/je r .2012.7. 5.56
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Indiana Code


IC 20-30-5   Chapter 5. Mandatory Curriculum

IC 20-30-5-17
Access to materials relating to personal analysis, evaluation, or survey of students; consent for participation

Sec. 17. (a) A school corporation shall make available for inspection by the parent of a student any instructional materials, including:

(1) teachers' manuals;
(2) curricular materials;
(3) films or other video materials;
(4) tapes; and
(5) other materials;

used in connection with a personal analysis, an evaluation, or a survey described in subsection (b).
(b) A student shall not be required to participate in a personal analysis, an evaluation, or a survey that is not directly related to academic instruction and that reveals or attempts to affect the student's attitudes, habits, traits, opinions, beliefs, or feelings concerning:

(1) political affiliations;
(2) religious beliefs or practices;
(3) mental or psychological conditions that may embarrass the student or the student's family;
(4) sexual behavior or attitudes;
(5) illegal, antisocial, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior;
(6) critical appraisals of other individuals with whom the student has a close family relationship;
(7) legally recognized privileged or confidential relationships, including a relationship with a lawyer, minister, or physician; or
(8) income (except as required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under a program);

without the prior consent of the student if the student is an adult or an emancipated minor or the prior written consent of the student's parent if the student is an unemancipated minor. A parental consent form for a personal analysis, an evaluation, or a survey described in this section shall accurately reflect the contents and nature of the personal analysis, evaluation, or survey.
(e) The department and the governing body shall give parents and students notice of their rights under this section.
(f) The governing body shall enforce this section.

As added by P.L.1-2005, SEC.14. Amended by P.L.286-2013, SEC.95; P.L.154-2018, SEC.1.