NORTH SMITHFIELD – A series of school surveys are drawing concerns among some North Smithfield parents who say they never gave their children permission to answer sensitive questions on topics such as drug use and sex.
Over the weekend, a number of parents took to social media to express their concerns about recent surveys at both the high school and middle school levels. Greg Galano, the parent of a student at North Smithfield Middle School, said he learned only after speaking with other parents that his daughter had participated in a health-related survey a few weeks ago. Among the topics covered, he said, were students’ sexual activity and whether children had witnessed violence in their neighborhoods.
“That is clearly going to make people upset. This is a personal issue. It’s a not a traditional health class where the permission slip would go home, your parent would sign it, and it was OK,” he told The Breeze.
After contacting school administrators, Galano learned the school had sent an opt-out form and information about the survey home with his daughter, but said he never saw the opt-out form.
Other parents on social media raised concerns that students may have been paid to take the survey. Supt. Michael St. Jean, addressing the concerns on Monday, told The Breeze there was confusion due to the fact the district has participated in two different surveys in recent weeks. The first, a Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered by the Rhode Island Department of Health, was given to a handful of students at the middle school, he said. St. Jean said the survey was given to students during their physical education classes and did not include a financial incentive.
“This survey is done every two years by the Department of Health and Department of Education,” he said. “It’s every two years, and they take a random sampling of middle schools and high schools in the state, and we happened to draw the short straw for this year.”
Sample surveys on the RIDOH website include separate question sheets for the middle and high school levels and instruct students not to write their names or answer questions if they feel uncomfortable. Along with sex and physical violence, topics covered in the middle school survey include suicide, bullying, drug use and electronic cigarettes.
Around the same time, St. Jean said, some students at North Smithfield High School participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, which measures students’ ability to use science, reading and math to meet real-world challenges. The survey was administered to 15-year-olds and included a $25 incentive in the form of a check, St. Jean said.
“That stipend was paid for by the U.S. government,” he added.
In both cases, he said, parents received information about the surveys and had an opportunity to opt out, but did not have to sign a form for their children to participate. Those procedures, he said, were in accordance with the Rhode Island Department of Education.
Following the outcry, St. Jean said he was contacted by members of the School Committee who had concerns about the surveys. The committee plans to take up the topic at its next meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 14, and review the district’s policy around administering student surveys.
“If our School Committee wants to do something more, make modifications, I don’t have a problem with that, certainly if it will give people comfort when these things come around,” St. Jean said.
Galano said he and other parents plan to make their thoughts known at the meeting and questioned whether the district should even be administering the surveys.
“I don’t think 12-year-olds in rural North Smithfield need to be asked if they’ve seen someone in the neighborhood shot or stabbed in the past month. To me, it’s just complete inappropriate,” he said.
At the very least, he said, he thinks parents should be sent a traditional permission slip.