5/24/12 Schools approve survey policy

Schools approve survey policy
Parental consent needed before questions asked
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 5/24/12     
Reprinted with permission.

   After months of debate, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education approved a policy that governs when and how students may be surveyed about potentially sensitive topics.

   In addition to parental approval, the policy requires the superintendent or another administrator as well as the school board to approve surveys that ask questions about potentially sensitive topics. The policy was approved in a 4-3 vote during a Monday night school board meeting.

   Board members Jackie Cole, Mary Erwin, Kristen Moffitt and Steve Van Pelt voted for the policy. Board members Brad Evans, Tony Rose and Patsy Simpson voted against it. Each of the three previously voted for an alternative proposal by Rose that would have banned surveys including questions on the topics. That motion was defeated when the other four members voted against it.

   The topics include:

  • political affiliations or beliefs of the student or student’s parent
  • mental and psychological problems of the student or student’s family
  • sexual behavior and attitudes
  • illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating or demeaning behavior
  • critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships
  • privileged relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians and ministers
  • religious practices, affiliations or beliefs of the student or student’s parent
  • income (other than required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program)

   Rose proposed a policy stating the system “will not permit surveys with the eight items listed here” and said all other surveys could be approved or turned down by the superintendent, with no need for school board involvement. He said he’s had feedback from community members and “outside the (school) board,” he’s heard no comments in favor of allowing surveys that include questions on the eight topics. Simpson seconded Rose’s motion.

   Moffitt, a pediatrician, reiterated from previous discussions that “the way I learn is by research studies” that are often based on survey results. She said surveys could potentially help address health issues or prevent self-destructive behavior among students.

   Simpson said she had no problem with that, but asked why surveys could not be conducted somewhere else: “You don’t let everybody in the schoolhouse door.” She said the surveys could take too much time that should be used for something else.

   Board members favoring the policy as it stood said it had enough safeguards in place.

   “Our parents always have the opportunity to opt out,” Erwin said, adding “I’m a little confused about why we’re backtracking.” With Rose and Simpson voting against it, the board had approved the policy on what is called “first reading” in April.

   The second reading, resulting in Monday night’s vote, is, unless waived, required as part of a process meant to encourage thorough discussion, input from the public and possible changes to policies as they are considered.

   “We act like this is actually going to happen,” Van Pelt said about survey requests coming to the board. He referred to an earlier statement from Assistant Superintendent Angela Duncan that the system had received two requests since October for surveys on potentially controversial subjects. Duncan said the requests were turned down because potential benefits did not outweigh the time the surveys would have taken.

   “I think that’s about what we can expect,” Van Pelt said, in terms of future requests.

   “I believe ... we will invite more surveys,” Rose said, by adopting a policy that says they will be allowed in some circumstances.