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State board tables student health survey decision again

The State Board of Education Thursday afternoon voted unanimously to table any decision on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey until its April meeting.

Several members said they want to see the letters that go out to parents, and other documents, before determining whether the survey is voluntary. If they decide it’s voluntary, then a state law requiring advance parental consent for certain kinds of surveys wouldn’t apply.

Thursday marks the second time this year the state board has delayed action on the survey given to middle and high school students every other year.

Some parents and state board members have expressed concerns about how parents are notified about the survey, which includes questions about sex, drugs and suicide. Currently, districts have a choice about what type of parent permission to get, and most choose “passive consent,” which means students are administered the survey unless parents sign a form opting them out.

An official from the state health department who spoke at the meeting emphasized that the survey is voluntary at every level—for districts, schools, teachers, and students. But by the end of the discussion there was still disagreement about whether it’s truly voluntary or if the wording amounts to semantics.

Board member Debra Scheffel, a Republican from Douglas County, said most parents don’t know enough about the survey to opt their children out. In advance of next month’s meeting, she said she wants to hear from individual parents, not parent groups, to determine if they perceive the survey as voluntary. The Colorado PTA was the most prominent parent group that spoke in favor of the survey and the current notification model.

The PTA representative was among more than a dozen commenters, including students, parents, district administrators, and public health advocates. Many talked about the survey’s benefits in setting policy priorities, identifying service gaps, and writing grants for adolescent health programs. All the speakers favored leaving the current notification system in place.

After the 45-minute public comment period, Board Chair Marcia Neal, a Grand Junction Republican, praised the speakers for their impassioned, reasonable and sensible arguments, and drew a laugh from the crowd when she said, “It was really a pleasant experience.”

Board member Pam Mazanec, a Republican from Douglas County, said the commenters  represented only one side of the issue and read a letter from a parent who opposed administering the survey in public schools regardless of what kind of parental consent is used.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said the title of the survey is misleading and some parents may not realize they should ask more about it. After some board members asked what the board’s legal authority allows them to do, Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl said they can determine whether the survey is voluntary.

At the board’s February meeting Dyl presented an informal opinion stating that parents must give prior written consent before their children take the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, citing both federal and state law. But on Thursday Dyl said the state law requiring active consent wouldn’t apply to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey if the board determines it to be voluntary.

Both the middle and high school surveys (the middle school version doesn’t ask about sex) state on the first page that they are voluntary and that students can skip questions that make them uncomfortable.

While schools and districts are not required to administer the survey, there may be financial incentives to do so. For example, a recent grant application for youth substance abuse funding from the Colorado Department of Education includes a requirement that recipients participate in the survey.