Volk: Passive parental consent violated district policy

Lakeville School Board Member Michelle Volk vowed to alert parents and lawmakers about the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey questions school staff said underwent “major revisions” and Volk said pervasively invade family privacy.

She raised concerns about how the Lakeville Area School District obtained parent consent for students given the survey last year, which she noted violates district policy.

District staff said the School Board granted permission for them to veer from policy requiring written parental permission for students to take surveys that ask about their or their parents personal beliefs, sex practices, family life, morality and religion.

Per board approval, the district obtained “passive consent” from parents, requiring them to sign a form to opt their child out of taking the survey, said Renae Ouillette, student and special services director.

Ouillette said past practices required “active consent” where parents signed a slip allowing their child to take the Minnesota Student Survey.

She said they hoped the change would allow the district to get more students participating, and gain more statistically reliable results.

The change yielded “drastically” increased participation rates, particularly among high school students, Ouillette said.

About of about half the high school students in grades 9 and 12 took the survey in 2010.

After requiring parents to opt their students out of the survey, 75 percent of last year’s juniors and 87 percent of 2013 ninth-graders took it.

The increase also translated to elementary children, which already had high participation rates, according to the district.

Nearly all — 97 percent — of the district’s fifth-grade class took the 2013 survey, up from 82 percent of the district’s sixth-graders in 2010.

The survey was also given to younger students last year than in previous years, going from students in grades 6, 9 and 12 to grades 5, 8, 9 and 11.

Because some of the questions were deemed inappropriate for the younger students, the fifth- and eighth-grade versions of the survey were shorter than the version given to 11th-grade students, according to the Minnesota Student Survey district results report.

Survey concerns

Volk said she was “very angry” about the type of questions asked of students on the survey, which is given in 280 of the state’s 334 public school districts.

Ouillette said that survey answers are anonymous, and information helps the district know how to respond to community issues.

Questions asked on the survey included whether the students think their parents, teachers and friends care about them, if they feel they can talk to their parents about their problems, if their parents have ever been in jail or prison and if the student has had to stay in a shelter or home because they had nowhere to stay.

The survey also asked children if they live with their biological parents or other possibilities, including: step parent, adoptive parent, father and partner, mother and partner, mother or father only, sometimes with their mother or father or if they live with relatives.

Survey questions also asked children if they participate in activities because their parents want them to, and how many days per week they participate in religious services, education or youth groups.

The state also asked children if they live with anyone who drinks too much alcohol, uses illegal drugs or abuses prescription drugs and if a parent or other adult in the home regularly swears at them, insults them or puts them down.

Volk said, under Lakeville School District policy, written parental permission is required for students to take surveys that involve issues of morality.

Questions were raised about what constitutes a moral question.

“I contend that by asking if you have a family member that is taking drugs, drinking or swearing you’re getting into morality issues,” Volk said.

Ouillette denied that the questions were based on morality.

“Nobody’s asking them whether it’s right or wrong,” Ouillette said. “It’s a factual question. Is this true or not true?”

School Board Chair Roz Peterson said concerns were prompted because the survey questions changed so drastically from prior years.

“What came up as concerns is that I don’t believe (in prior surveys) that we asked questions about people’s parents and their behaviors as much,” Peterson said.

Volk said she would take action to make parents aware.

“I’m going to make an issue out of it in the future,” Volk said. “I’m sending the survey back to Rep. (Mary Liz) Holberg who is on the Data Privacy Committee. The state changing the questions the way they did, parents need to know what’s in this survey.”

Volk, her voice shaking, said she also plans to take the survey to advocacy groups who are telling parents to opt out of every survey school districts are giving.

“There’s groups out there that are livid about some of the things that are taking place in the schools,” Volk said. “So, it’s going to just multiply itself over the next year.”

Policy    

District officials cited the board’s approval for passive consent in the fall of 2012, and said, per district policy, parents were given the opportunity to see the survey questions prior to it being administered to the students.

They added parents were informed about the surveys in newsletters.

An Eastview Elementary parent and a Century Middle School parent made appointments to review the survey questions and a Cherry View Elementary parent opted their child out of taking the survey, according to district staff.

Peterson read district policy that states before students are given questions involving morality, written permission is required from students’ parents.

“It sounds like we gave them an email version, so is that written or not?” Peterson said.

The issue was raised in a Feb. 25 work session, and Board Member Bob Erickson said discussion will likely be continued at a regular board meeting, which is televised.

He called that potential scenario “embarrassing.”

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