News

Bedford survey taken by students at Ross A. Lurgio middle school raises ruckus among some parents

Friday, April 25, 2014

By LORETTA JACKSON

Staff Writer

Letters to the editor have been coming in to the Bedford Journal regarding a survey on student attitudes, life and behavior, many of which strongly opposed the nature of some of the survey’s questions.

The survey – a multiple choice document from Search Institute, a Minneapolis firm that according to its website has for more than 50 years helped organizations, schools and community coalitions discover what kids need to succeed – was recently distributed to students at Ross A. Lurgio Middle School. A full copy was available for parents’ perusal at the school. A letter notifying parents about the survey, conducted during the week of March 31, was sent out from the school on March 21.

The survey began with an assurance that responders would remain anonymous. A prompt to be as honest as possible followed. A subsequent letter sent to parents from Ed Joyce, the school principal at Ross A. Lurgio Middle School, also was forwarded to this newspaper after numerous parents complained about the subject matter in some of the survey questions.

Some questions included: During the past 30 days have you used marijuana or hashish? How many times, if any, have you used cocaine (crack, coke, snow, rock) in your lifetime? Have you ever had sexual intercourse (“gone all the way,” “made love”)? Have you ever tried to kill yourself? How often do you binge eat (eat a lot of food in a short period of time) and then make yourself throw up or use laxatives to get rid of the food you have eaten? In an average week, how many times do all of the people in your family who live with you eat dinner together?

Some of the comments in that letter from Ed Joyce, the principal, revealed that “the survey has been used for 16 years to assess middle school students’ positive developmental assets as well as their possible risky behaviors.”

He reiterated that the survey was optional. He said that in the school’s emailed newsletters, issues of March 21 and March 28, parents were informed of the nature of the survey and the process for its administration.

“Students were informed that their participation was not required,” Joyce wrote. “They could skip any questions they were not comfortable answering.”

He allows that future news letters will be more specific as to the fact that certain survey items concerned sex. His full response letter is published elsewhere in this issue.

Jane Aitken, a Bedford resident since 1989, and former teacher for some 35 years, is one who wrote a letter to the editor. She later said in a phone interview that she was upset and disturbed to think that any parent would not find the survey intrusive. Similar letters have been received.

Aitken said she believes that many of the personal questions listed in the survey were designed to compile data on the participant. She added that questions about sexual habits were far outside the bounds of propriety.

“As a teacher for 35 years, teaching in all grades from kindergarten to eighth, I can not imagine asking children any of those question,” Aitken said. “If I was a stranger asking those questions, I’d be considered a predator. The federal government has a law that says you cannot ask children questions without their parents’ permission. I have my doubts that all parents knew this was happening.”

Aitken said she fears the youngsters’ answers will not remain anonymous. She likened the survey to a dossier, an intricately detailed report about an individual.

“The whole purpose of this is to create dossiers on children,” Aitken said. “This is a dossier that will stay with them for life. I’ve been asked to create dossiers for my students and I would never do it. It’s called ‘value added’ information. It’s not academic. This is something that will stay in their files for life. It’s more of a social engineering tool. It’s not right.”

The survey resembles a standardized academic test. A box was to be marked next to the answer selected by the student. There are 160 questions.

While some who wrote to the editor were shocked, appalled, upset or disturbed when reading the survey questions, others said they saw the survey as a way to learn more about the experiences of students, youngsters who may be their sons or daughters.

Elizabeth Wiggins, a Bedford mom of a high school student, said that, based on a survey the high school students were given, it seems the middle school survey was more in depth and had some sexual questions.

“I have three children and a grandson and I can say they learn about many things at a very young age,” Wiggins said. “By the time they’re in fifth grade or sixth grade, they are well aware of most things that were mentioned in the survey. I think a lot of parents would be shocked if they knew what their kids know, or have heard in the hallways.”

Wiggins said kids are very good at hiding what they know from their parents.

“We’ve always been very honest with our children,” Wiggins said. “None of these questions would have shocked our kids. If we don’t tell them, who will? The kid down the street? That could be a nightmare.”

Kamee Leshner, of Bedford, shared some threads of conversation on Facebook with other parents whose statements reflected a range of emotions. She later commented in a phone interview for this feature that parents are naive if they think kids are not aware of the topics mentioned in the survey. She said the kids all know about sex.

Leshner added that there were only a couple questions on sexual activity, plus one about self-identification and gender identity. She said she thinks this survey will force parents in to having conversations with their children about some difficult topics.

“I feel parents should have the conversations early,” Leshner said. “My daughters can ask me anything. You may truly believe that your child doesn’t know about such things but why would you risk having your child around people, during the day, that do know everything?”

Leshner said it is important to teach children that they are in charge of their own bodies.

“They’re in charge of their own bodies and they need to understand they have the right to say no,” Leshner said. “I believe we should be doing far more, at a younger age, using proper terms, to teach them what they need to know.”

Lisa Villemaire, of Bedford, said she was surprised by the uproar. She said the survey is very similar to the ones that her parents took in middle school and high school. She said she remembers being asked similar questions when she was younger.

“The only thing, in my opinion, that has really changed about the questions over the years is the slang terminology for thigs related to drugs and sex,” Villemaire said. “I respect that some parents did not want their children to participate. That’s why the district gave parents the right to opt out of the survey.”

Villemaire added that the school made the survey available for any parent to view.

“As a parent, I did feel informed of my options and what types of topics would be covered in the survey,” Villemaire said. “A letter sent to parents specifically said the students would be asked about decision-making and actions in regards to high-risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use. The letter also reinforced that the survey was voluntary and students could skip items if they wanted to do so.”

Justin Roskopf, senior survey specialist for Search Institute, said many years of research have resulted in the identification of the assets discussed in the survey.

“One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that this survey is focused on the developmental assets framework, which are 40 things that have been identified in decades of research to promote healthy behavior and academic success,” Roskopf said. “The surveys then correlate these assets to participation in risk behaviors, as well as thriving indicators. This, in turn, provides a snapshot in time of the needs as well as strengths of the youth in your community.”

He added that the full survey is not shared online as a precaution against survey participants studying ahead of time the questions and the range of answers related to each question. A sample of the survey and others offered by Search Institute can be viewed on the organization’s website at www.search-institute.org.

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