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Survey authors defend questioning Bedford middle school students about their sex lives

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 08. 2014 9:59PM

The authors of a survey of student behavior that riled some Bedford parents because it asked middle school pupils personal questions about sexual activity, drug use and other controversial activities say school districts are told to give the students every opportunity to opt out of taking the survey.

In Bedford this week, some parents addressed the school board with complaints about many of the questions on the survey. Chief among their complaints were questions concerning intimate sexual activity. Parents were upset that they had not been warned about the range of questions in the survey.

Bedford School Board Chair Terry Wolf said some changes in the school district's administration of the survey, which has been used for more than a decade, may have been responsible for some parents being caught off guard by the test.

For the first time, a shorter survey, without the questions about sexual activity, were given to students in the elementary schools.

"They were looking at things like persistence in doing homework, or are you curious," Wolf said. "That's what they were notified of at elementary levels."

Wolf said that the notice to middle school students about the survey may have tracked the language of the notice sent to the younger grades. The survey sent to parents of elementary students warned of questions about drug and alcohol use, but included no notice of the questions about sexual behavior.

Justin Roskopf, senior survey specialist at Search Institute of Minneapolis, said schools can order a "purged" version of the test, which omits questions found objectionable.

"When we go into any survey administration, we want to be clear that parental permission is a top priority," Roskopf said. "It is a top priority. Parents should definitely have the option to opt out."

Materials provided to the schools make it clear that students also have the right to opt out, he said.

"They should be told 'if you feel uncomfortable you can stop taking the survey,'" Roskopf said.

But some doubt whether an adolescent of 11-13 years of age would readily stand out among members of his or her peer group and decline to continue the survey.

"It's a very awkward situation in dealing with the eighth grade and below," said James Stiles, a professor in the education department at Plymouth State University. Peer pressure could influence if they participate and how they respond. But it could go both ways. In some communities people are resistant to doing it and peer pressure could go both ways on that."

Bedford is not unique in having parents become upset over some of the questions in the test. Opposition to the survey has also been heard in communities such as Litchfield, Conn., Lubbock, Texas, and Ridgewood, N.J., where parents sued to stop the survey, arguing that it violated rights of privacy and First Amendment protections against compelled speech. The case was thrown out of federal court, which was upheld by a federal appeals court in a controversial 2005 decision.

In addition to allowing parents or students to opt out of taking the test, it can also be administered without some specific questions found objectionable, the testing company said.

"We may get a question from a superintendent and we talk it over and they work it out with parents to see what they are comfortable with," Roskopf said. "They work it out with parents to see what they are comfortable with."

Roskopf said the results of the survey are used to identify trends in student behavior, to prepare for and evaluate grant applications and to design programs to keep students away from risky behavior.

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