Non-Academic Surveys in the Classroom

Earlier today the Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on SB 43, relative to non-academic surveys administered by a public school to its students. It is similar to SB 320 (2016) that was vetoed by Gov. Hassan as well as HB 206 (2015), but would require active parental consent (opt in) for all non-academic surveys including the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The committee may exec this bill at any time; brief and polite calls are most effective, but emails are also helpful. Mention if you are a constituent. You can find the committee members’ contact information here.

Below is the testimony we submitted to the committee.

January 24, 2017

To:          Senate Education Committee

From:    Michelle Levell, School Choice for NH and NH Liberty Alliance

Re:         SB 43, relative to non-academic surveys administered by a public school to its students

My name is Michelle Levell and I am the Director of School Choice for NH, a coalition of concerned citizens and leaders that advocates for educational options in the Granite State. I submit this testimony in support of SB 43, relative to non-academic surveys administered by a public school to its students.

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 what she considered to be an intrusive survey, 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.

In early February 2016 a Rochester 9th grader was 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 (2015).  Attached is a copy of the parent’s description of what happened. (Refer to Non-Academic Survey Required in Rochester, Feb 2016.)

The  Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) was distributed to almost 15,000 students in 67 high schools in spring 2015 and is published by the Center for Disease Control. These surveys are controversial and parents may or may not wish their under-age children to participate. The YRBS contains questions about six different behavior areas: behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence; sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV infections; alcohol and other drug use; tobacco use; unhealthy dietary behaviors; and inadequate physical activity. The YRBS also “measures self-reported height and weight to allow for calculation of body mass index for assessment of overweight and obesity.” While important, these are clearly non-academic questions about behaviors outside the classroom.

Participation in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey is tied to federal funding. 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 funding, schools have an incentive to minimally reveal the controversial content and to follow poor notification practices. Although the YRBS allows either active or passive consentJohn Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute, argues that this survey falls under the “written consent” category under federal law, Model Notification of Rights Under the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), because of the content. He also said,

“passive notification is merely a surreptitious way to avoid obtaining written parental consent. And in the end, whether due to the child losing the notification form or forgetting to give it to the parents, parents are often left in the dark, unaware that their children are being subjected to invasive tests.”

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 and privacy.

We have a demonstrated problem in New Hampshire with non-academic surveys being required and not anonymous. Passive consent puts the responsibility re notification upon children instead of adults. Chasing federal funds is no excuse to ignore parents’ rights to direct their children’s education and privacy.

Please give SB 43 and Ought to Pass (OTP) recommendation.