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The Colorado Springs School District 11 administration building.

Controversial surveys that collect data on students’ personal thoughts and experiences are one step closer to requiring written consent from parents in Colorado Springs School District 11. 

The school board on Wednesday supported a revised policy governing research projects, studies, experiments and surveys. A formal vote to adopt the revision is expected to take place on March 22.

Surveys are given to D-11 students automatically unless a parent or guardian chooses to opt their child out. Under the drafted revision, parents and guardians would instead have to provide written consent to opt their child into — rather than out of — surveys that collect information on the following: 

• Political or religious affiliations

• Mental and psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student or his family

• Sex behavior and attitudes or topics that infringe on student privacy

• Illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating and demeaning behavior

• Critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships 

• Legally recognized privileged and analogous relationships such as those of lawyers, physicians and ministers

• Income other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a confidential and anonymous survey from the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, is one of the most notable surveys to be impacted by the revision. 

Agencies use the information to obtain funding for programs to address identified problems, such as smoking or vaping, and to track behaviors, health indicators and trends.

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Administered statewide in the fall of odd years, the survey contains more than 100 questions for middle and high school students regarding a host of topics, including their sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use, thoughts of self-harm and suicide, eating and sleeping habits, bullying, access to guns at home and other personal lifestyle and health information that some parents think goes too far.

“What is the intent of this policy? It’s to make parents aware of how we’re using data and to let our staff and buildings use the data appropriately. The end,” board Vice President Jason Jorgenson said.

In a letter sent to the D-11 superintendent and board on the morning before the meeting, El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly opposed revising the policy, saying information provided by the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey lets the community know what kids are going through and how to help them.

In the past decade, El Paso County has twice experienced survey participation so low among its 15 public school districts that it did not have statistically significant data to share, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Participation is expected to decrease under an opt-in policy. 

Board director Julie Ott called attention to the coroner’s letter as she explained why she will not support the revised policy as written.

“If I’m a parent who wants my kid to take that survey because I believe it benefits the community, then you’ve taken that away from me,” Ott said. “People say it has nothing to do with the district and things like that, but it does. It keeps students alive.”

Board President Parth Melpakam said the decision is not about choosing ignorance. Rather, it’s about parental choice.

“As a father, I’m choosing to protect the innocence of our children. That’s my choice I am making now,” Melpakam said. “We are trying to build trust and transparency.”

Among other changes in the revision is the requirement that data collected on identifiable students — that is, from surveys with names attached to them — be shared with parents and guardians in a timely manner. The board did not decide on a specific time frame for the survey data’s release to parents, but several members proposed the end of the semester in which the survey was given.

Also under the revision, researchers will be required to explain in writing any outside organizations that have access to data.

“Whatever we have to do to make sure the parent is comfortable, then we just have to do it,” board director Al Loma said. 

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