WALLINGFORD — Some questions may be removed from a proposed risk behavior survey before it’s administered to middle school students in response to objections from some Board of Education members who say the questions are not age appropriate.
“I would feel I would be irresponsible to my duties and to myself if I didn’t speak out against this after having enough time to review it and go over it in detail. I just don't think it’s the right survey to go to the junior high people,” Republican board member Ray Ross said during a meeting this week.
The board voted 8-1 to table the discussion for a future meeting, with the possibility of modifying or removing some of the questions. The board’s five Republican members indicated that they would not support the survey as it was presented.
“I’m not comfortable with asking sixth graders some of these questions. So, you know, eight graders would be a little bit different, but I feel like some of these are just a little bit too personal and there might not have been conversations already had with parents and children about them,” said Republican Autumn Allinson.
The survey asks students 50 questions about safety, health, drug use, bullying, mental health and sexual activity, including how consistently they wear a helmet while bicycling, use of a host of drugs and condom use. All results would be anonymous and a message at the end encourages students who need someone to talk to reach out to an adult or call the United Way social services 2-1-1 hotline.
The board’s instructional committee accepted the wording of the survey by a 5-4 vote on March 2.
Board members also disagreed over how the survey could be given to students with special needs, particularly those who would need to be read the text without breaching confidentiality, and whether it should be opt-in or out for parents.
In its current form parents would have the ability to opt out, however some board members are concerned that some parents who would disapprove of their students taking it might not be properly informed ahead of time. Changing it to be opt-in might not yield enough permission slips for a valid participation rate.
Noting that he changed his vote from supporting to opposing the survey as it’s currently written, Ross said he’s not convinced that it could yield information that the district could act on and some issues, such as alcohol consumption or sex, are best left for families to discuss for this age group. The effectiveness of surveying the students could be improved by changing some of the questions to focus on the in-school environment, where staff have more ability to act on what they see, he said.
Some Democrats on the board shared the concerns of their Republican counterparts, but said they still believed administering it can provide needed data to tailor the district’s guidance and wellness programs.
"We did the same sort of thing at the high school level and we found some very good facts and information that helped us in our dealings with children in our school system and I think the same thing can happen in the middle school,” said Democrat Michael Votto, noting that parents could see the survey ahead of time and opt-out of it. Between teachers and parents, he believes that students that cannot handle the material in the survey could be identified on a case-by-case basis.
A similar version of the survey has been given to Wallingford high school students since 2013, which Wellness Curriculum Coordinator Tony Loomis said has led to improvements in programming in the schools. For instance, after seeing students reporting not receiving help after feeling "sad, empty, hopeless, angry, or anxious,” the district focused on finding students who are struggling and providing support. In subsequent surveys, the number of students reporting not receiving help had declined.
“We’ve seen some amazing improvements and a lot of positive impacts as a result of the program that we’ve done, from the results at the high school level, and we’re looking to extend that and learn more about our middle school students,” Loomis told the curriculum committee during its March 2 meeting.
Coalition for a Better Wallingford President Ken Welch, who helped draft the high school survey, said he understands that the topics in the survey are uncomfortable, but he believes an important part of the survey is to show parents what kids are thinking so they can talk about the issues at home.
“I think they should be concerned, but I think they should be more concerned about watering this thing down,” he said.
Even if students aren’t widely engaging in the behaviors the survey is exploring, Welch said it’s important to find out their perspectives on them to better form curriculum to inform students of the risks.
“We’ve been pretty excited that we could finally get that data for the middle schools,” he said, “and if we could affect their attitudes at that age then the theory is we won't have to be as concerned about their behaviors three, four, five years later.”