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Sex, drug-use questions appropriate for Student Life survey?

Published 7:19 am, Thursday, April 10, 2014
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Lisa Davy isn't sure a survey to be given to more than 4,600 students in the town's public schools is such a good idea.

"I don't know that it's appropriate for all of our students," Davy, of Wilton Road, said at Tuesday night's Board of Education meeting. Davy questioned if it is appropriate for middle school students to be asked if they're straight or gay, having sex, using heroin or sniffing glue, or spending time in religious activities. "I haven't seen how it helps parents," she said.

Davy and Nancy Haberly, of Duck Farm Road, said parents should be required to actively give consent to allow their children to take the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership's 2014 Profiles of Student Life Survey, instead of a "passive opt-out."

"I'm wondering how a passive opt-out for parents and children can be legal," said Haberly, who objected to survey questions about heroin and crack cocaine use. "This is far beyond what the school should be doing."

The survey, to be given in classes in the middle and high schools, is anonymous and the results are used by RYASAP to determine its agenda, said Bob Francis, the nonprofit's executive director. Wendy Bentivegna, the co-chairwoman of the Fairfield Cares Task Force, said the results also guide her group's programming. "We find it incredibly valuable data," she said.

The survey, written by the Search Institute in Minneapolis, has 160 questions plus a supplemental questionnaire that deals with prescription drugs and social media. The same survey would be given to students in Bridgeport, Monroe, Stratford and Trumbull, Francis said. He said RYASAP has surveyed students in greater Bridgeport area schools since 1985 and that about 1 percent of parents decline via the opt-out system to have their children participate. School officials don't use "active consent" for participation because it would take three to six months to contact all of the parents, according to Francis.

The opt-out applies only to parents, but students could opt-out simply by not answering the questions or leaving some of them blank, Francis said. "If they didn't complete the survey, we wouldn't use it. If a student decided not to fill it out, nothing is going to happen to the student. We often get a few blank [responses to] questions," he said.

But Donna Karnal, a school board member, said she wasn't sure students realize they can effectively opt-out of the survey, and fellow board member John Llewellyn said, "People should be able to opt out easily."

Deputy Superintendent of Schools Karen Parks said the survey is advertised to parents through the school district's Infinite Campus portal on its website. "We have a high rate of compliance of parents using Infinite Campus in middle and high school," she said. "It's been an effective communication vehicle for us."

But Christina Marson, of North Cedar Road, said the school district shouldn't solely rely on Infinite Campus. "We need to get the information out ahead of time ... There's a real disconnect between what you may think happens and what actually happens."

The school board, by unanimous consent, decided to require that parents of middle school students be e-mailed about the survey through Infinite Campus and that information about the survey be "prominently displayed" on the web portal for parents of high school students.

Francis said it isn't a good idea to let students take the survey home because their answers could be influenced by their peers or parents. "You start to bias the responses. You've got a closed environment in the classroom," he said.

Once the results are tabulated, the information is shared with town and school officials and PTAs, Francis said. "The first thing we do with the data is we present it all back to you," he said. Towns use the data when submitting grant applications on behalf of RYASAP, and the Fairfield Board of Education used the data years ago when it instituted a breathalyzer test at proms, Francis said.

Caryn Campbell, a RYASAP board member, said results also are useful in educating students about what is happening with their peers. She said her message last year to high school freshmen was that only 19 percent of ninth-graders drank alcohol, which she indicated may have seemed low to students at that grade level. She added that the survey also is useful in identifying trends. "For example, e-cigarettes are on the rise," she said.

Christine Vitale, PTA president at Roger Ludlowe Middle School, said her PTA hadn't discussed the survey, but thought its data was "powerful" and that the only way to know if students are involved in risky behaviors is to ask.

Francis said the last survey, administered three years ago, revealed "two big findings of concern for us," which he identified as depression and a broad difference between males and females on "developmental assets." Females scored higher than males on 36 of 40 developmental assets and RYASAP used those results to obtain a grant to address mental health and was instituting a male version of "Finding Your Voice," Francis said.

Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly, a school board member, said the survey is not funded by the Board of Education, but that the board is involved in "educating the whole person." She said some areas of a student's life outside the classroom have an impact on their academic performance.