Colorado, Indiana Parents Balk at Invasive Teen Surveys


A formal ruling by Colorado's Attorney General issued this week affirms that teens can take a health survey without having their parents' permission beforehand.

Jenny Brundin, reporting for Colorado Public Radio, writes that a biennial survey asking middle and high school students questions about drugs, sex, physical health, and suicide has had some Colorado State School Board members concerned.

Board members think that some of the questions on the survey are inappropriate and that parents should have to give permission before a child can take it. As it now stands, students can't take the Healthy Kids Colorado survey unless their parents sign a form opting them out. Because the survey is not compulsory, the "passive consent" is legal according to the Attorney General. Also, the fact that the survey does not fall under the auspices of the federal Department of Education means parent consent is not mandatory.

The Attorney General added that the state school board may ask what students are told before they take the survey and can decide whether parents receive a letter which explains how to opt out of the survey. When a district chooses to participate in the survey, parents should get a letter which explains the survey. Some parents spoke out against it.

 "You are invading and, in my opinion, raping my children's mind," said Anita Stapleton, citing data privacy concerns. The survey is anonymous.

Most health officials and parents testified over the course of the two board meetings that requiring permission before the survey would seriously reduce the number of students who would provide information. The survey is used to glean information for providing support and targeting programs for youth in need. Taylor Stein, a youth advocacy coordinator with Colorado Youth Matter, said:

"When we don't ask these questions or acknowledge the problems that young people are facing," he said, "we are telling them that their problems do not matter, that we do not want to talk about them."

The last survey showed that LGBTQ young people are six times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. The survey attempts to help identify needs for prevention programs like anti-bullying campaigns. The multiple choice questions on the survey help to monitor behaviors that can lead to death and disability of youths, such as alcohol use, tobacco use, substance abuse, sexual behavior, and physical health.

Dr. Amy Sass, an adolescent medicine specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado, says the anonymous survey gives an accurate snapshot of what teens are going through. It asks questions about bullying, when a teen becomes sexually active, and drug use. The state can then use the information to obtain federal funding for prevention programs, according to KMGH-TV's Jennifer Kovaleski. Dr. Sass added:

"It really gives a voice to our teens in the State of Colorado."

Colorado's State Health Department estimates that it would cost an additional $20 per student if advance permission is been required. In 2013, 40,000 students at over 220 schools took part in the survey.

Some parents in Noblesville, Indiana think the questions on the Indiana Youth Survey, given by the Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC), are too personal as well. Some statements like "People in my family have serious arguments" and "People in my family often insult or yell at each other" are included in the questionnaire. The executive director of IPRC, Ruth Glassman said the questions "ask risk and protective factors for alcohol, tobacco, and drug use" and other questions to probe for risk factors at home." 

"Those are personal questions, and if, you know, I want people to know what's going on inside my home, I'll let them know," mother of a seventh grader at Noblesville West Middle School, Michelle Bracewell said.

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