BEDFORD — Ross A. Lurgio Middle School parent Jonathan Zdziarski has contacted the state Board of Education, filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, sent a letter to the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and sent a request to the School Board to have his daughter's survey destroyed.
Zdziarski and some parents are upset over a recent survey presented to middle school students saying the questions were inappropriate and were given without proper parental notification and consent.
"I did this because I believe that some of the sexually explicit and self-mutilation questions were so mature that they may have even contributed to a threatening or hostile environment for female students, especially given how boys react to such questions," said Zdziarski. "Additionally, being asked such intimate questions could easily make students of any gender uncomfortable and feel as if they're in a hostile environment. We would not tolerate these types of questions to be asked in the workplace, nor would we accept a stranger asking such intimate questions."
In March, middle schoolers were given the Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors survey, which included questions about sexual orientation, illegal drug and prescription medicine abuse, alcohol and cigarette use, which family members they live with and whether they eat dinner together, what grades are earned at school, depression and thoughts of suicide, sexual activity and use of birth control, weapon use, participation in extracurricular activities, binge eating, friendships and if they have an adult in whom they can confide.
The 160-question survey has been given to middle schoolers every four years for the past 16 years, but this is the first time a shorter survey — the Developmental Assets profile — was given to grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10. In that survey students were asked if they say no to things that could hurt them, their attitudes about school, homework and learning, solving conflicts without hurting someone, feeling safe at home and at school, telling the truth, and if they have parents who listen. The surveys are provided by the Search Institute of Minneapolis, which compiles the responses and sends a report of findings to the district.
Superintendent Tim Mayes said email letters were sent to parents before the survey was conducted and notices were posted on the schools' websites at the principals' corner page. The district sends most notifications electronically to save money on paper, to fulfill parents' requests to receive correspondence through email, and also to ensure that notices arrive home to parents, he said. Parents of third- and fourth-graders had to opt in to take the survey, and parents in other grades had to opt out.
"The survey is voluntary, no student is being required to participate. Students, if they participate, may skip any and all questions. The survey is anonymous. This was articulated clearly in the letter to parents which was emailed on two occasions and also reminded parents they could view the survey in advance," said Mayes.
He also said he hopes parents have given the district their correct and most current emails.
"Do they get it and do they read it? We're dependent on parents giving us the correct information. They may have read the paragraph and didn't click open the link to the letter. I get all that," he said.
Zdziarski said federal law requires that public schools obtain written consent from parents prior to giving a child a survey containing questions on sexual behavior or attitudes, mental or psychological problems of the student or student's family, self-incriminating behavior and religious practices.
"All of these questions, and more, were present in a survey recently given to my child without my consent, and without parental notification," Zdziarski said. "The school did not request consent from parents in writing, as required under federal PPRA law and, in addition to this, wrote a misleading letter to parents that completely omitted this content form the purported survey. To add insult to injury, the letter itself was even buried in an email as a single link along with yearbook renewals and other mundane information, where I suspect few parents even saw it."
The surveys are used to determine student performances and teacher evaluations, and to identify school goals for core content and how the district measures up on its mission statement regarding student interactions, curiosity for learning and respectfulness of self and others, Mayes said.
The survey results are used by the district to identify positive attitudes and assets in students, and by organizations such as the Coalition of Bedford Youth, which promotes healthy behaviors in students and promotes programs to helps students prevent at-risk challenges such as drug use, sexual activity, cyberbullying and thoughts of suicide. The results have also been used to design the annual Stand By Me program attended by seventh-graders.
The results of past surveys are posted on the organization's website, cbynh.org, and are available for public view. The 2010 results show an increase in drug and alcohol use, carrying a weapon, skipping school, and sexual activity in middle schoolers.
"The use of aggregate data is to address the at-risk behavior and if we see a change in positive assets we can address them. We want students to be less prone to at-risk behavior," said Mayes.
He said the district has the responsibility to listen to students' concerns and how they're being treated.
Mayes said he believes that the federal law referred to by Zdziarski regarding the protection of student rights is applicable only if the student is being required to participate in the survey, according to www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/20/1232h.
Zdziarski said his daughter was told she had to take the survey but didn't have to answer uncomfortable questions. However, according to Zdziarski, she was told to put her student identification number on the top of the survey.
Mayes said he will call the Search Institute to find out if students had put their identification numbers on the surveys.