BOSTON — Worried that public schools are being turned into public policy laboratories, some state lawmakers want to tighten laws regarding academic surveys that seek information on a range of thorny issues, from drug abuse and smoking to sexual activity.
Local schools are occasionally asked by universities to survey students, so that data can be collected on social trends. The surveys can be controversial, as was the case late last year at Triton Regional High School. Parents objected to a Harvard study that asked students sensitive questions such as rating which of their parents was a better role model, and characterizing their parents’ opinions on issues such as racism, wealth, and how the poor should be treated.
But it was a recent incident at Andover High School, involving a survey conducted by University of New Hampshire researchers, that fueled a flurry of calls on Beacon Hill to limit such questionnaires.
A proposal filed by state Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, would require parental consent prior to conducting surveys or screenings of elementary and high school students. Her bill requires that surveys be reviewed by parents before students take them.
Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover, who supports the bill, said parental consent is “paramount.”
“I’m a strong believer that parents should be involved in the decision over whether their children should be participating in these kinds of surveys,” he said.
While school districts typically send notices seeking a parent’s permission for a child to participate in a survey, no law requires it.
As a result, some parents learn about surveys after the fact.
In Triton’s case, parental permission was sought, but the extent of the questions was not made clear to parents. Superintendent of School Christopher Farmer apologized to parents, and said the school in the future would seek to publicly release the questions to parents before the survey is administered. Harvard agreed to destroy the survey results.
David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center, said surveys of high school students are becoming increasingly common as researchers seek more accurate information about sexual activity, drug abuse and other societal issues.
“Surveys can have a big impact on public policy, so that information is very valuable,” he said.
Paleologos said depending on the methodology used by researchers, voluntary surveys can yield important data about young adults, which is then used to improve school safety, reduce unwanted pregnancies, or curb violence and sexual abuse.
“A lot of times, students aren’t communicating with parents and teachers,” he said. “It’s hard to break through the ring of social media to find out what’s going on with teenagers unless you’re asking the questions and trying to gather the information.”
Data on how frequently schools districts throughout the state are subjecting students to survey research isn’t available.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said information gleaned from surveys helps school districts understand the challenges that many students are going through and develop approaches to deal with those issues.
“It helps districts to focus on the kinds of stress that kids are going through,” Scott said. “But a lot of parents don’t want schools intruding on their child’s personal life, and I can respect that. It’s a fine line that we walk in trying to figure out what our kids are thinking.”
In Andover, research was conducted as part of a “Bringing in the Bystander” program focused on intervention in sexual abuse. At least 30 high schools in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine are participating.
A survey team gave a 15-page questionnaire to high school students on Feb. 29. The survey asked a number of identifying questions — including a student’s initials, the month they were born, and the name of their first pet.
Students were asked graphic questions about sexual encounters including, “(Have you) had sexual activities with a person by threatening to use or using physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.)?”
Other questions asked students if they were attracted to boys, girls or “equally attracted to both,” and how often they engaged in sexual intercourse.
Opt-in forms were sent to parents last year seeking consent for their children to participate in the two-year program.
While the first round of surveys were delivered in class, last month’s follow-up surveys were handed out in the cafeteria, where students were given cookies and discounted lunches if they participated.
Researchers at UNH did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but an op-ed piece published in Sunday’s Eagle Tribune defended the questions as “highly valid, reliable, standardized survey questions used in other federally funded research.”
The researchers, with UNH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, said the questions will be used to help “identify the most effective strategies to prevent relationship abuse and sexual assault.” They noted the surveys are anonymous and “will not be shared outside the research team.”
Surveys taken by students without parental consent will be “destroyed,” and future questionnaires will be conducted only by students with permission, they wrote.
But the researchers brushed off suggestions that the material used in the surveys is damaging to students. “Research is clear — answering questions about attitudes and behaviors is not harmful to youth and does not cause youth to engage in risky behaviors,” they wrote.
Dan Gillette, who gave permission for his teenage son to participate in what he thought was an “anonymous” survey, said he was upset to learn about the identifying questions.
He said the methodology raises privacy concerns.
“What was administered was anything but (anonymous), no matter how many times they deny and rationalize it by explaining their process and intentions,” he said. “It’s not UNH I’m worried about. I support their work, otherwise I would have opted out. But if you promise anonymity, keep that promise.”
Krystal Solimine, whose 14-year son was in the cafeteria when the surveys were conducted, said she isn’t opposed to programs intended to educate students about sexual abuse.
But she doesn’t give permission for her son to participate in surveys.
“I just don’t trust them, and this proves my point,” she said. “The lack of anonymity raises serious privacy concerns.”
Conservative groups say the incident also highlights a need to involve parents in questions about sexual activity.
“It’s ironic that if you want Tylenol from the school nurse or go on a trip to the museum, you need to get a permission slip,” said Andrew Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Family Institute. “But if you want to expose children to graphic sexual and violent ideas, you don’t need any permission.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.