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Commentary: School district should answer questions about survey

By John Diers Aug 3, 2018

Does the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District follow state and federal law? Does it follow its own policies?

As a parent, what would you do if your middle school son or daughter came home and told you they had to take a survey at school that asked about their sexual orientation, if they’d had sex, or thought about killing themselves? Consider, too, that you weren’t told about the survey, or asked to give permission for your son or daughter to take it. This isn’t a rhetorical question because on June 6, District 719 assigned such a survey to all sixth, seventh and eighth grade students, some as young as 11.

For some families these are personal questions with social and religious implications best shared in a family setting, or with a psychologist, a physician, a counselor, or clergy. Privacy is important. It has to be respected — then there’s the matter of state law.

According to Minnesota Statute 121A.065:

School districts and charter schools must:

Directly notify parents of policies at the beginning of each school year and after making any substantive policy changes.

Inform parents at the beginning of the school year if the district or school has identified specific or approximate dates for administering surveys and give parents reasonable notice of planned surveys scheduled after the start of the school year.

Give parents direct, timely notice, by United States mail, e-mail, or other direct form of communication, 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.

School districts and charter schools must not impose an academic or other penalty upon a student who opts out of participating in a survey.

The same, or similar language is in federal law. The school district has a separate policy that reflects the language in both. Even so it appears the district didn’t follow any of them when it administered its survey. Why and for what reason? I don’t know, nor do the parents I’ve talked with. They’ve challenged the district for an explanation and received none — nor at this writing has the survey been discussed in a public statement from the district. I learned about the details in a July 14 column in this newspaper and in emails and discussions on “Next Door Prior Lake.”

My wife and I are in our 70s and don’t have children in district schools, but as a matter of accountability we still have questions: Why the survey? What business is it of the school district? Is there an academic need for these questions? And what about student privacy? How is it protected? Who sees the survey results, teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, and students — or are the results sold to outside groups or interests for marketing and/or research purposes? None of these questions have been answered by the school district.

There should be an explanation and an investigation and disclosure as to why, and how, this happened — and with it a public apology to parents. More importantly, the elected school board should get involved and call for an inquiry.

I’m not hopeful or optimistic that we’ll see accountability for any of it. There seems to be a culture of collusion between the current board majority and the school administration — an Orwellian “groupthink.” That is an unwillingness to question, or debate, or challenge, or seek different opinions. Instead, the current board majority supinely seeks comfort and safety in consensus, while silencing and punishing other board members, or those outside the board who publicly disagree. A board apologist calls it the “district voice.” Another term might be McCarthyism.

We’ve seen this behavior before. Specifically the board majority took action against another board member whom they’d accused of hosting a party where high school students were allegedly permitted to consume alcohol. Coincidentally, this same board member asked questions and disagreed with the majority and wasn’t deemed a team player. The accusation was investigated by legal counsel and determined to be unfounded. More recently another member was called to account for writing a newspaper column that didn’t reflect “the district voice”— or the party line. And let’s not forget, in conjunction with the recent referendum, this same board majority selected and awarded, on recommendation of the school administration, a multi-million contract to a consulting firm without benefit of an open, public procurement process.

This November brings an election and an opportunity to elect a new board. Let’s be sure we affirm that all the candidates know, and understand, the importance of open discussion and debate; that they’re prepared to challenge the administration, when its required, and, in so doing, are willing to bring a measure of accountability to the decision making process.

Please read more from The Prior Lake American:

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.