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Commentary: School district didn’t follow correct steps with student survey

By Wes Mader Community Columnist Jul 10, 2018

Parents of middle school children are learning that the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District administered a survey to their sixth, seventh and eighth grade children that asked explicit questions about sexual activities. This survey could be in violation of state and federal law and Minnesota Department of Education guidelines.

The survey asked “During the current school year, have you participated in the following: Sending partially clothed and/or naked pictures; Touching in a sexual way; Having sex; Talking about sexual topics that make you feel uncomfortable.” It also asked “Are you GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning); Have you ever tried to kill yourself; Have you ever thought about killing yourself?” I had doubts about what I was hearing, until I obtained a copy of the survey from the school district office.

Minnesota law 121A.065 is specific, stating that a district must “give parents direct, timely notice” when their students are scheduled to participate in a student survey and “give parents the opportunity to review the survey and to opt their students out of participating in the survey.” Federal law in its Protection of Pupil Rights Act (often referred to as the Hatch Amendment) also requires that survey materials be made available to parents to inspect prior to use with their child and to require written parental consent if the survey includes sensitive personal questions. I think our school board and administration know that asking a sixth-grader if they are “having sex” is personal.

I respectfully submit that these questions are inappropriate for children as young as 11 or 12 years old, and should be asked only by a parent, if and when they believe their child is mature enough to discuss the subject in a responsible manner. I strongly believe placing these questions in front of young students with expectations of an answer, can create the start of a very unhealthy emotional thought process. While I recognize and respect that some will disagree, I hope all responsible parents agree that this kind of survey should not be administered without parental approval. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the school district did.

It takes a stretch to believe school board and administration personnel are unaware of the laws specifically intended to prevent infringement on the rights of parents, by school officials. If that’s the excuse, it doesn’t speak well of the skills and capabilities of those entrusted with making critical decisions that impact the well-being of young students. If they were acting under the belief or hope that parents wouldn’t find out, that’s totally unacceptable. It’s worth noting that information from the Minnesota Department of Education states specifically “Questions about sexual behavior are asked only of ninth and eleventh grade students.”

One would expect a school board to discuss and respond immediately to any allegation of violation of state and federal law, particularly when supported with indisputable facts. However, since this issue was brought to the attention of school officials about six weeks ago, I’ve seen nothing to suggest they consider it serious enough to merit discussion or resolution by the board, or disclosure to parents and the public. It suggests to me that school district leaders are again in a state of denial.

This brings us once more to the subject of transparency. There is no shortage of feel-good news from the district. Columns in this newspaper by the superintendent and school district newsletters read like news from Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon. The narrative seems to be that everything is great, the school board and administration are doing an exemplary job, everyone is happy and I assume all the kids are above average. But then there’s the serious stuff we’re not supposed to know about like the illegal survey.

The kids we’re concerned about are in the Prior Lake-Savage School District, not Lake Wobegon, and not all parents and residents are happy with decisions being made by school district leaders. Asking sixth to eighth-graders to answer questions about sexual behavior and orientation, while keeping parents in the dark, is not good news. Ignoring and remaining silent about allegations that state and federal laws have been violated is not transparency. Refusing to identify the school employee who approved a $600,000 payment to Nexus just weeks after their contract was signed, on the absurd claim that the employee’s name was protected under state law, is subterfuge. In that instance it took intercession by a state agency (the Minnesota Department of Administration) to get the district to comply with state law and provide Jim Dellwo’s name, months after initially requested.

Until the district stops filtering, censoring or limiting what parents and the public are entitled to know, many will continue to question their motives and actions. If the board doesn’t restore accountability and transparency to the district, lack of trust will continue, which is a sad state of affairs for students, teachers, residents, and tax payers.

Wes Mader, Chair
Citizens for Accountable Government

Please read more from The Prior Lake American: https://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-school-district-didn-t-follow-correct-steps-with-student/article_2953ae0a-0e0d-5a44-8b51-c701762c2a27.html

Wes Mader is a former Prior Lake mayor. Following retirement after serving as president of Bowmar Aerospace and Defense in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Wes and his wife Char retired in Prior Lake, purchasing their current home in 1992.