Non-Academic Surveys and Parents’ Rights

SB 320 had a public hearing on Tuesday, February 2, 2016 . This bill would require parental opt-in for their student’s participation in non-academic surveys and questionnaires. It is similar to HB 206 that was signed into law in 2015, but goes an additional step to include active parental consent. The bill may have an executive session at any time, so contacting the Senate Education Committee as soon as possible is critical.  The following is the committee’s contact information. Brief and polite phone calls are most effective, but emails are also helpful. Particularly mention if you are a constituent.

John Reagan, Chairman
john.reagan111@gmail.com
(603) 271-4063

Nancy Stiles, Vice Chairman
nancy.stiles@leg.state.nh.us
(603) 271-3093

Kevin Avard
Kevin.Avard@leg.state.nh.us
(603) 271-4151

Molly Kelly
molly.kelly@leg.state.nh.us
(603) 271-3207

David Watters
david.watters@leg.state.nh.us
(603)271-8631

 

UPDATE 3/20/16:  The House Education Committee will hold a public hearing on SB 320 on Tuesday, March 21 starting at 10:00am. Please contact them at HouseEducationCommittee@leg.state.nh.us or attend the hearing. SB 320 was amended by the Senate to exempt the Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the active consent policy. This is an acceptable compromise that balances funding for important social programs yet recognizes parents’ needs to protect their students’ privacy. This compromise will help thousands of parents protect their under-age students from most (although not all) of these intrusive surveys.

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SB 320, relative to non-academic surveys administered by a public school to it students, is the result of the study committee created in HB 206 (2015) that required the legislature to further research non-academic surveys and questionnaires administered in our public schools. This bill recognizes that these surveys often include personal questions and under-age students should not be compelled to participate.

Schools routinely ask students to complete non-academic surveys and questionnaires. Usually they are part of state or federal programs to assess students’ attitudes, values, decision-making, and behaviors. However, the intrusiveness and nature of these surveys are not fully disclosed to parents to make a informed decision about their student’s participation.

Current practices and policies require only passive consent; that notice is posted in some manner, but without any explicit parental permission for participation. Just imagine a loose paper jammed into a middle-schooler’s backpack. What is the likelihood that a parent will find it among all the other pieces of homework, textbooks, and leftovers from lunch? Imagine the typical conversation between a high-school student and parent at the end of a busy day. When mom or dad asks how their day went, what is the likelihood that the teen will remember to give a notice to his/her parent? This puts the responsibility upon the child, instead of the adults.

Several New Hampshire school districts have distributed questionable surveys and questionnaires to students without explicit parental authorization. In November 2013 a Hollis-Brookline parent submitted a letter to the local paper when she received an outrageous reply from a school board member about her concern. She was upset when her high school student received an intrusive survey titled the NH Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The reply from one of the school board members was shocking and exceptionally rude. Not only was this school board member dismissive of the parent’s concerns, she suggested that parents receive a penalty if they don’t follow the school board’s rules.

In spring 2014 Bedford middle school students were given a objectionable survey without prior parental consent. This survey was titled Profiles of Student Life, Attitudes, and Behavior. Several of the questions asked about sexual activity and preferences, suicide, drug use, and physical abuse. At the time parents were given an opt-out, not an opt-in choice. They also were misled about the nature of the survey. It took several Right to Know requests to finally receive a copy of the survey.

Additional research revealed that the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), the same one that was given in Hollis-Brookline, was distributed at 71 public high schools across New Hampshire in 2013 (the most recent available on the NH DOE website) and is published by the Center for Disease Control. The YRBS is administered every two years, so it was last given in spring 2015, a few months before HB 206  was enacted. It is jointly administered by the NH DOE and the NH Department of Health and Human Services. Participation in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey is tied to federal funding for various school and community health programs. Prior to 2013 Georgia omitted questions about sexual behavior from the YRBS they administered to high-school students. However, they lost federal funds in 2013 because they did not comply with the Center for Disease Control’s mandates to include those questions. Because this survey is tied to federal funds, schools have an incentive to minimally reveal the controversial content and to follow poor notification practices. YRBS allows either active or passive parental consent.

Although there are few New Hampshire examples related specifically to surveys in the media, there were other recent examples of schools blatantly failing to notify parents of controversial material. In spring 2014 Manchester elementary students were shown a video about molestation without parental notification. Also in May 2014, Gilford High School parents were not given advanced notice about a controversial novel in the 9th grade English class. These occurred as part of classroom materials and activities, not surveys, but these examples show how some schools fail to follow passive consent policies.

Just a week ago a Rochester 9th grader was recently required to complete intrusive surveys as part of his mandatory health class. These questionnaires were required homework and in-class assignments; neither was optional nor anonymous. Both were distributed without any advanced notice, in violation of the new law created by HB 206.

Rochester parent letter, 2/1/16 page 1
Rochester parent letter, 2/1/16 page 1
Rochester parent letter, 2/1/16 page 2
Rochester parent letter, 2/1/16 page 2

To be clear, this is not to debate the merits of the CDC’s community programs or the Youth Risk Behavior Survey itself. The intention of promoting healthy choices for our adolescents has many benefits. However, the ends do not justify the means if it ignores parents’ rights to make informed decisions for their child’s education.

These surveys are controversial and parents may or may not wish their under-age children to participate. Parents should know what is asked of their children and give explicit authorization for them to participate. Please support SB 320 and issue an Ought to Pass recommendation.