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New bill gives parents more say in kids' schooling

Sandy Delancey was angry to discover her son was part of a behavior study and even angrier when she learned his Pittsburgh elementary school didn't need her permission for the third-grader to participate.

The Pennsylvania woman is part of a group of parents who accuse in a lawsuit that researchers in the 1995 study delved into whether children ever forced anyone to have sex or tortured animals. Kyle Delancy, now 10, was so upset he suffered severe headaches, his mother said."I wasn't even told, let alone asked," she said. "I was surprised that the only way I could get the problem resolved was to take people to court."

Parents across the nation are waging court battles over their right to information concerning their children's education. Members of Congress are proposing a measure to bolster parents' rights - and penalize noncompliant schools by withholding federal money.

Federal law, enacted in 1974, is too vague, said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., a sponsor of the new bill. The statute says parents should have access to files and other materials directly related to a student, but it doesn't spell out what a parent is entitled to see - and it doesn't require parental consent for students to undergo counseling or psychiatric evaluation.

Researchers say parents misunderstood the 1995 study, which had been widely used in Pittsburgh but was canceled in the Gateway School District after parents complained. A lawsuit is pending in federal court against the district and the psychiatric hospital at the University of Pittsburgh, which conducted the study of hyperactivity and other behavior disorders.

Legal rulings on such matters vary: A Michigan couple lost a court battle to view records of a counselor's sessions with their son, who they said was counseled without their permission. But a California couple successfully obtained a court order to review the curriculum of an elective class in which their son was enrolled.

The National PTA argues that parental rights legislation could interfere with child abuse laws and school discipline codes. And the National Education Association says the bill "may pave the way for lawsuit after lawsuit that could literally paralyze the public school system," said NEA spokesman Steve Wollmer.

Tiahrt argues Congress should make the rules crystal-clear for school administrators.

"My purpose here is to eliminate any misunderstanding. Parents should be involved," said Tiahrt, who introduced the measure Wednesday. "Whenever we involve parents in the educational process, kids do better and schools are stronger. When parents are excluded from the system, they are suspicious of it."

The measure's co-sponsors include House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, dozens of Republican lawmakers and a handful of Democrats. It's backed by conservative groups including the Rutherford Institute and the Family Research Council.

The measure would guarantee access to such curricula-related materials as textbooks, films, manuals and audiovisual materials. And parents would have the right to see the tests their children take, with the exception of standardized achievement and copyright tests.

It would require schools to obtain parental consent before students undergo medical, psychological or psychiatric examination or treatment at school.