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Parents: Beware of Mental Health Screenings at School

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Writer   Schools across the nation that may be participating in the controversial practice of subjecting to teens to mental health screenings may think twice about the practice after an Indiana court ruled that a lawsuit filed by the parents of a misdiagnosed teen can go forward. The case involves 15 year-old Chelsea Rhoades, a student at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Indiana, who was administered a mental health exam known as a “TeenScreen” at a local mental health center without her parents’ knowledge.   According to the Rhoades family attorneys at The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, on Dec. 7, 2004, students were taken to the nearby Madison Center for Children, divided into groups of 10-15, herded into classrooms and placed in front of computers. The mental health exam consisted of questions seeking only a “yes” or “no” answer, with no opportunity to explain or offer an alternative response. “After completing the examination and being escorted into a private hallway by an employee of the Madison Center, Chelsea was informed that, based on her responses that she liked to clean and didn’t like to party very much, she suffered from at least two mental health problems, obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder,” said a statement by The Rutherford Institute. “Chelsea was also told that if her condition worsened, her mother should take her to the Madison Center for treatment. According to Chelsea, a majority of the students who were subjected to the TeenScreen exam were also told they were suffering from some sort of mental or social ‘disorder.’” Chelsea’s parents were not informed about the mental health screening exam until after it had taken place, when Chelsea spoke to them about her so-called diagnosis. In September 2005, Rutherford Institute attorneys filed suit in federal district court on behalf of the Rhoades family, charging that school officials violated Chelsea’s constitutional right to be free from unnecessary intrusions by the state. The school district attempted to have the case dismissed but the court ruled against them, saying the school is liable for the false diagnosis of mental illness given to Chelsea. The most recent ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana has upheld the family’s claim that the school district deprived them of their federal constitutional rights to family integrity and privacy when it subjected Chelsea to the test. “This ruling rightly recognizes that parents have an intrinsic right to control their children’s education, as well as safeguard their mental and physical well-being,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. The case will now move to the trial stage. Mental health screening exams like “TeenScreen” have been adopted by schools in 43 states, reportedly as part of an effort to identify students with mental health problems or at-risk tendencies for suicide that cannot be seen outwardly. However, while federal and state law generally requires that parents grant written consent in order for their children to take mental health screening exams, some schools had relied on “passive consent” forms in order to administer the exams. Passive consent requires parents to return a form only if they do not want their child to participate in the screening.   According to The Rutherford Institute, the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, as well as Indiana state law in the case of Chelsea Rhoades, states that schools are required to obtain “written parental consent” before engaging in such programs as mental health screening.   © All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly/Women of Grace.