Minnesota survey asking students about their ‘identities’ may violate state and federal law

The survey asks students to describe how they "fit into categories for societal identity."

Background: The Centennial Office Building, a state government office, leads up to the State Capitol in St. Paul. (Minnesota Department of Administration/Flickr)

A survey developed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE) for high school students may run afoul of federal privacy protections, according to the Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC).

On Monday the UMLC sent a letter to OHE General Counsel Andrew Wold expressing its reservations about the survey, which the OHE developed for its “Get Ready” program to prepare high school students for college.

The survey asks students to describe how they “fit into categories for societal identity,” including their racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, ability, religious or spiritual, national, socioeconomic, and age identities.

Based on UMLC investigation, the survey does not appear to have been voluntary, and parents ostensibly had no opportunity to opt out or consent to the survey.

This may violate the Federal Electronic Rights Privacy Act (PPRA), which prohibits the conducting of surveys related to religious, political, and sexual attitudes without parental consent in the case of minors, or written consent in the case of adult students.

The letter also asks for clarification about which Minnesota state law grants the OHE the authority to ask questions on the various “societal identities” of students.

Minnesota law does require all school districts to “assist all students […] to explore their educational, college, and career interests, aptitudes, and aspirations and develop a plan for a smooth and successful transition to postsecondary education or employment.” But the UMLC is skeptical of how questions about “societal identity” serve this requirement.

“If OHE has identified a meaningful link between demanding a student’s ‘gender identity’ or ‘socioeconomic identity’ and ‘[…] a comprehensive plan to prepare for and complete a career and college ready curriculum by meeting state and local academic standards,’ it is unclear from the survey’s text,” the letter reads.

According to a Tuesday statement, the UMLC is giving the OHE an opportunity to explain the survey’s harmony with state and federal law. But if it doesn’t, the UMLC will consider “further investigation or a lawsuit” against them.

“We hope there is an explanation for the imposition of this survey which might eliminate the need to bring a quo warranto or declaratory judgment action related to its imposition,” the letter concludes.