NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The topic of student surveys was reviewed again at the New Hanover County School Board meeting on Tuesday, this time with Superintendent Charles Foust weighing in on the district’s practices.
The policy committee — chair Josie Barnhart, Pat Bradford, Stephanie Kraybill — was tasked with reviewing policy 4720 on school surveys. The board sent back the committee’s previous rejection earlier this month to clarify the policy’s language.
READ MORE: NHCS committee recommends restrictions on transgender middle school athletes
Barnhart and Bradford have been advocates for more transparency for parents on the topics of surveys and the data’s intended use — particularly for surveys involving “protected topics,” like sexual behavior, mental health and political beliefs.
According to Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam, the district administered five surveys last school year on health habits, youth risk behavior, bullying, and the highly-criticized Title IX survey.
During Tuesday’s policy meeting, Bradford suggested the board post surveys from previous schools years to the website for parents to review. Varnam and Foust pointed out the district is given samples of the survey, not a full copy, and posting it or its results could invalidate the survey’s intentions.
“Surveys are administered to our students that none of y’all have actually seen the survey, all of it … doesn’t that cause anybody else any concern?” Bradford said.
Foust responded it doesn’t, citing the fact the surveys are compiled by state and federal experts.
“I have never, ever felt my two children have been violated by a survey,” Foust said. “What I fear most about is what they get on their cell phones, what they have access to. That’s where I put the limits on them.”
Several people in the room’s audience clapped in response.
“I’m not looking for a clap,” Foust said.
He also pushed back on Bradford’s suggestion that the board review and approve all third-party surveys. That would require the board call a special meeting every time the district received a survey. If it waited until a regular board meeting, the deadline to agree to participate could pass.
Varnam pointed out some surveys are critical indicators for funding and, therefore, highly encouraged that the district participate.
Kraybill also took issue with approving each individual survey. She said she didn’t want just one board member’s disapproval to prevent a survey from taking place.
“We know we have board members who will do that — ‘I’ve changed my mind, I’ve posted on a blog,’” Kraybill said.
(In the school board’s recent decision to reverse its middle school transgender sports policy, member Melissa Mason issued two blog posts on her campaign website before the vote.)
In the end, Barnhart dropped the suggestion to review each survey. The committee agreed to amend policy language so the board will be notified of surveys and their intended data use but won’t be required to approve them.
Parents are already entitled to review survey material upon request. Parents opt in for federally funded surveys on protected topics, but have the option to opt out on state and local ones.
Yet, Barnhart advocated for language outlining parents must provide prior written consent for all surveys on protected topics, regardless of source, at the January policy committee meeting. Both Bradford and Kraybill said they would be in favor of that policy change.
“Nationally parents are concerned about surveys as being an invasion of the privacy of their child, so we need to be accountable to the public on this,” Bradford said during this week’s meeting.
On Tuesday, Barnhart added parents should have a week to review material before an opt-out or opt-in decision is required, instead of just being notified of approximate dates the survey will take place at the beginning of the school year.
The North Carolina General Assembly is also considering requiring parents to opt in to all protected surveys, with a 10-day window for parents to review the material. The rules are outlined as part of the Parents’ Bill of Rights, sponsored by New Hanover County’s Sen. Michael Lee (R). The bill passed the Senate on Feb. 7, with Pender County’s Sen. Brent Jackson (R) and Brunswick County’s Sen. Bill Rabon (R) voted to approve it.
READ MORE: ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill comes to North Carolina? Lee sponsors parent rights legislation
One of the main reasons the policy was reverted back to committee was to gain clarity on some surveys that are part of curricula. Varnam asked the committee if two surveys in middle school health education could be exempt from the new policy because they act more as pre- and post-assessments.
She explained the evaluations are on “shifting boundaries” and “creating a bystander” as part of the healthful living curriculum. Parents also have the opportunity to review these materials during a parent night before the tests are administered.
Bradford again suggested the district post surveys from the past years online.
The board did not make a decision on whether those surveys would be excused from the proposed opt-in policy change. It will be reviewed at the next policy committee, with updated policy language indicating the desired changes. Kraybill said she was uncomfortable voting on amendments without seeing them written in the policy.
The committee will also address the counseling program at the March policy meeting. Bradford wants more distinction between group and individual counseling programs.
Kraybill again took issue with how many changes were made; it was unclear which ones were made by committee members versus updates from the state.
Moving forward to the school board, however, will be proposed changes to the district’s attendance policy, although more amendments could be discussed in the future.
Barnhart said parents have been concerned about the repercussions of a student missing too many days. Current policy states students are at risk of losing class credit if they miss more than 20 days per year. The district has the option to refer parents not making good-faith efforts to improve their chronically absent child’s attendance to social services.
The district clarified measures are taken to improve attendance, including letters and parent meetings — students are not automatically punished when missing 20 days.
Bradford also raised concern over “elite” student athletes’ absences. If they have to miss school for a non-school-related competition, it is counted unexcused. She advocated they be allowed to do online assignments while away that will count toward attendance.
Her point hit on the issue of expanding excusable absences, which the board has leeway to do according to the district’s legal counsel Jason Weber. However, Foust would need to study the long-term implications of more allowances.
“Across the state, we would be doing something new,” Foust said.
Varnam noted just making exclusions for athletes might not be fair, since the district has many students “with competing demands.” For example, some students may work to support their family. She requested an equitable way to apply a changed policy to the entire student population.
However, Kraybill was not in favor of any changes.
“I’m just really having a hard time with this discussion on how we’re going out of our way to give students the opportunity to be out of school,” Kraybill said. “When many of our board members keep saying we don’t have enough time in there to do reading, writing, math and science.”
The major suggestions were postponed to a future date. The policy changes moving forward are minor language changes from the state board.
Also to be readdressed at the next meeting: the transgender sports policy. After a contentious debate on Feb. 7, the school board voted to restrict middle school students to participate on the sports team of their assigned sex.
Kraybill requested at the beginning of the committee meeting to add it to the committee’s agenda to ensure federal law is being followed; Barnhart said she would add it to the committee’s March agenda, saying it could wait because the policy change won’t take effect until the fall.
“There are students that this affects right now who are quaking in their boots and would like for us to make sure that we’re clear that we will follow federal law,” Kraybill said.
Follow up on PCD’s coverage on middle school transgender sports participation here:
NHCSB reverses transgender sport team freedoms, meeting recessed over clash involving a Proud Boy
NHCS committee recommends restrictions on transgender middle school athletes
NHCSB members flex right-wing muscles, transgender sports participation up for debate again
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com
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