School Committee Supports Opt Out Policy for Youth Risk Behavior Survey
A 4 to 1 margin allows the health department to administer survey without the permission of parents; parents can opt out with a signed form.
The Chelmsford Public School Committee voted last night to allow families to decide to opt of taking the bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
The survey is passed out to Chelmsford High School students by the health department. The anonymous survey asks questions regarding the habits of teens, including health and wellness, sexuality, drug and tobacco use, diet, physical activity, and a variety of other factors.
The committee's vote changes the current opt-in policy, where a student must have a permission form signed by parents before they can participate in the survey. The change would make all students eligible to participate, unless a similar permission form opted them out of the survey.
According to Ann Russo, the Department Coordinator of Health and Wellness of Chelmsford High School, 2010’s survey garnered 72 percent participation, and that was only after the survey was postponed several times so that the minimum requirement of 50 percent participation could be met.
Russo said an opt-out policy will bring those numbers up to 95 to 98 percent, a number consistent with opt-out policies in other area school districts. Russo voiced concerns that the 72 percent didn’t show a random sample size and undermined the reliability of the survey.
“These results are based only on a percentage of students taking this survey,” she said. “The results of the (survey) taken at Chelmsford High School is not a true showing of a (cross-section) of the student body. This is due to the fact of asking of positive parent permission.”
Janet Askenburg, the School Committee Chairwoman, hoped that the passive permission policy will solve this problem.
“It may be that child who has taken the piece of paper home, and maybe there is nobody home that really has an interest in it, and that is the child we want to be able to capture,” said Askenburg.
Russo told the committee that the health department has made positive changes due to information collected from the survey. Programs of instruction like “I am dirt”, “Not me, not my friend, not my child,” as well as focus groups at Chelmsford High School concentrating on addiction were implemented after YRBS surveys. The department also started the SOS program in 2011 to curb bullying in CHS as a direct response from data collected in the 2010 survey.
“Because of that, many kids are now coming forward, and asking for help, and understanding that it’s okay to ask for help,” said Russo. “They’ve implemented programs each and every year due to the results and they’ve had nothing but positive results.”
Committee member Al Thomas said that the data is reliable enough that when a trend is detected, it is usually significant. This came into play several years ago when the Health Department had discovered that a number of students answered that they had contemplated suicide after tabulating the survey results, Thomas said.
“Without the survey, we never would have picked that up,” said Thomas. “When we get a change, it really is valuable information.”
One concern raised by committee member Evelyn Thoren included the fact that, as the name implies, passive permission would mean parents needn’t be as engaged with the goings on of the survey. She said she was trying to keep the Health Department from a “slippery slope” regarding health program policies.
Parents shouldn’t be worried that their children will be obligated to fill out the survey if they fail to opt-out, Russo said. Russo said that students can always choose not to fill out the survey, or skip questions if they so desire.
Russo said the results of the 2012 survey expect to be tabulated on April 24, with the results relayed to the Chelmsford Public Schools Health Department by July.
The health department plans to update parents about the survey through a variety of sources, including a take-home permission form, e-mailing, and notifications on the school website.
The committee voted 4 to 1 to approve the measure. Committee member Evelyn Thoren voted against the change.