When Is Parental Notification of Surveying Underage Students in an Educational Setting Allowed in Lieu of Active Parental Permission?

by LegalFix
Posted: July 28, 2022
parental notification / consent laws

Most researchers know they need parental permission when surveying underage students in an educational setting. However, there is extensive debate regarding how researchers should obtain active parental permission to conduct a study.

There is a process known as passive consent, during which parents are notified of the study and asked to let the school or researchers know if their child is comfortable with participating. The controversy around this practice arises because if parents fail to provide the necessary information, it is assumed that the child consents to the study.

 In some studies, active parental consent is not legally necessary, and researchers only need to provide parental notification to ensure parents are aware of all classroom activities. Obtaining active parental permission may hinder a researcher’s ability to collect data, but doing so provides legal protection for all parties involved. 

Why Do Researchers Fail to Obtain Active Parental Permission?

 Research from the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) states that the passive consent process does not follow the regulatory requirements for seeking parental permission and is highly discouraged. Researchers are strongly encouraged to obtain active consent, during which parents must provide a consent form for their child to participate in the study.

 But these regulations cause significant issues for researchers because studies requiring active consent have much lower response rates. Furthermore, researchers found that the active consent process leads to a lower response rate amongst children with unstable home lives, which produces biased, unreliable data. Researchers argue that parents who fail to complete consent forms generally do not oppose their children partaking in the study; they simply never received the form or were too busy to provide the information.

 Essentially, the parents that can return the form have a more organized lifestyle, but parents that fall within the high-risk demographic are simply unable to complete and return the form. The parents not returning consent forms are most likely on the free school lunch program and fall within a lower socioeconomic status. As all of these factors connect, it becomes clear that researchers cannot obtain quantitative data about the demographics that interest them the most.

 Why Is Parental Permission Important in Research?

 The parental permission and education research regulations exist because parents should be trusted to make the best decisions for their children. Ultimately, these laws exist to protect children from unethical research studies. 

 However, abiding by parental consent laws and regulations benefits researchers as well. When researchers ask for parental consent, it grants legitimacy to the study and protects all parties involved while ensuring that researchers avoid rights infringement and legal liability.

 When educational research involves collecting data from children, the process of collecting and handling data comes with inherent risks such as:

  • Violation of Privacy: Collecting data about high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse may be considered a violation of privacy in the eyes of the parents, even if their children do not see any issue in providing this information.

  • Legal Risks: When researchers obtain data about illegal behavior, children and parents could face legal repercussions. Instances of legal repercussions are more likely to occur when research has not received legal protection in the form of a Certificate of Confidentiality.

  • Psychosocial Stress: There is a risk that studies will touch on sensitive issues that induce significant stress for child participants. For instance, questions pertaining to high-risk behaviors may make the child feel stressed about their self-image.

  • Social Relations: Many researchers are collecting data regarding how children behave with peers, family members, or authority figures. In this case, the data collection process can strain social relations if participant confidentiality is not protected.

When educational research involves child participants, researchers must also consider that parents and family members are at risk. These risks are especially apparent when researchers collect data regarding the at-risk behaviors of the adults in the child’s life. In addition, many parents believe that children participating in educational research without parental consent violate their right to determine their children’s activities.

When Can Researchers Use Parental Notification Instead of Parental Consent?

Despite the risks of collecting data from children, there are instances where researchers can safely conduct studies without formal parental consent. The primary federal rule regarding the protection of humans during experiments requires the person’s consent or the legal guardian’s consent if the person is under 18. However, there is an exception for educational research.

Parental consent is unnecessary when the researcher studies educational practices in a classroom that is “not likely to adversely impact students’ opportunity to learn.” In other words, parental notification is sufficient when researchers are evaluating educational strategies.

Researchers are legally obligated to obtain parental consent if their research pertains to subjects unrelated to the children’s everyday classroom experience. Institutional review boards at research organizations and universities are responsible for determining whether or not parental consent is required. However, independent researchers have the option to decide for themselves if parental consent is necessary. If an independent researcher is planning to publish a peer-reviewed journal, the study must undergo evaluation from an outside review board.

In the event that the research is collecting data in a manner that deviates from the typical classroom experience, parental consent is required. For instance, if researchers are giving students a survey or recording students, they must obtain formal consent from the parents of every child participating in the study.

Furthermore, student privacy laws determine the need for parental consent. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requires parental permission when researchers access student records, but researchers do not need parental permission if the information remains confidential and anonymous. The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment requires parental consent when researchers are giving surveys to children.

 Find Answers to Your Legal Questions on

 Although every educational research study does not require parental consent, obtaining this information can protect researchers, children, and adults from legal claims.