Surveys at NS middle and high schools draw questions, complaints from parents

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Parents in North Smithfield are questioning the district’s policy on parental consent following surveys administered last month – including one at the high school for which students were compensated, and another at the middle school that covered sensitive subject matter.

Both gave parents the chance to “opt out,” of participation via a consent form sent home with students. But some families are saying they never received the forms.

The middle school survey, administered by the Rhode Island Department of Health in October, reportedly aimed to access adolescent health risks, with questions covering topics such as depression, violence, drug use and sexual behaviors. North Smithfield Middle School was one of 29 in the state selected to take part in the anonymous, 51 question Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

First administered at the high school level in 1995, the survey was extended to Rhode Island middle schools in 2007, and is filled out by around 1,600 students every two years.

“The Youth Risk Behavior System Survey results help policy makers, school administrators, social service workers, and health personnel monitor risk behaviors of middle and high school students that are linked with major causes of mortality and morbidity among youth and adults in the United States,” notes a explanation of the questionnaire on the RIDOH website. “These results are also used in a variety of venues to develop policy; to plan and improve youth-based health programs; to determine existing health needs in order to develop effective intervention programs; to provide the most recent and updated information for grant submissions; and to improve the development of classroom lessons geared towards reducing health risk behaviors among adolescents.”

According to Supt. Michael St. Jean, the Rhode Island Department of Education selected a small sample of students from North Smithfield to participate, answering questions such as, “Have you ever seen someone get physically attacked, beaten, stabbed, or shot in your neighborhood?” and “Have you ever had sexual intercourse?” Forms educating parents about the questionnaire were given out Friday, Nov. 5 for the survey on Friday, Nov. 12.  

A total of 65 North Smithfield students in grades 6 through 8 took the survey, with seven families opting out.

The questions have since been shared on social media by some upset parents, and another sent an email about the topic to St. Jean and members of the School Committee.

“While I don’t believe there was any intentional harm done here by anyone, and everyone in our district truly does have the best interest of our kids at heart, the process in which how this was administered, the lack of explicit transparency to parents and most importantly the sensitive, intimate and controversial content that was put in front of our Middle School youth is a serious issue and a bad look all around,” wrote parent Frank Halliwell.  

Halliwell questioned the use of a “negative consent” form to obtain parental permission, and noted that the survey process also violated district policy, which states that School Committee members must vote to approve such forms.

“We are relying on 11,12 (and) 13 year olds to remember to give a very important piece of paper to their parents in order to opt out,” Halliwell said. “When I was in high school here in North Smithfield, our parents had to sign and return a permission slip circling, ‘Yes / No’ if they were comfortable with allowing their child to participate in the Health Class, ‘sex ed’ discussion.” 

St. Jean told NRI NOW that the procedures and documents used at the NSMS were supplied by RIDOH. He said that the surveys were, however, “inadvertently administered without School Committee approval.”

Resident Michael Clifford brought up the issue on his “Cliff Notes,” page on Facebook.

“Regardless of who or what organization the survey was done for, I’ve never heard of letting students participate in any survey discussing sensitive topics without a signed parental consent form,” Clifford noted. “The use of negative consent forms is one change in education that I don’t support. New trends aren’t always the best way of doing things.”

Several parents agreed.

“My son took this survey in October and I was never notified,” said Deborah Gianfrancesco. “I was appalled at the questions they asked my 12 year old son.”

“The school shouldn’t be asking our children if they have had sexual intercourse or how masculine they feel,” Gianfrancesco wrote. “Our children do not belong to the state or the schools, we are their parents and have every right to be infuriated by this.” 

North Smithfield High School, meanwhile, was one of just 50 schools in the United States selected to take part in a second survey, known as the Program for International Student Assessment.

“PISA provides important information for internationally benchmarking performance in reading, mathematics, and science of 15-year-old students in the United States against other countries around the world,” noted a letter to parents from NSHS Principal Timothy McGee.

The four-hour computer assessment was filled out by, “a select few students,” according to the letter. While questions on the assessment were academic in nature, the process has drawn criticism from some, following news that the students were given $25 to participate.

And parents were again asked to return the forms only if they did not wish for their child to participate.

“Students did receive a stipend for taking the survey paid for by the US Government,” said St. Jean.

Checks for $25 in the students’ names were made out by public health research firm Westat.

In the note, Halliwell questioned the wisdom of giving students money without express knowledge of the parents.

“What happens when and if a child purchases drugs or alcohol with the money,” he asked.

St. Jean told NRI NOW that the School Committee will be reviewing the district’s policy on the administration of student surveys at their next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 14.

School Committee Chairman James Lombardi confirmed that the issue will be discussed.

“In the future, I believe there must be an affirmative indication that notifies the parent of the questions involved and the process of opting in or out,” Lombardi said.

St. Jean said that while the process for obtaining consent hasn’t changed, he’s not opposed to discussing a change going forward.

I certainly do not have any issues with changing at the district level, especially for sensitive surveys, and exceed the requirement with an opt-in or a yes/no participation form,” he said.

Editor’s note: The above article has been updated from its original version to reflect additional details and comments provided by Supt. Michael St. Jean.

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