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Bill would require parental permission for surveys of students at N.H. schools



Monitor staff
Monday, March 20, 2017

A bill likely to land on the governor’s desk could make it more difficult for administrators and researchers to figure out what interventions are or aren’t working in New Hampshire schools.

Senate Bill 43 would require schools to get written permission from parents before administering any non-academic survey to students. The bill’s backers say it’s imperative parents have a say if their children are going to be surveyed about sensitive topics.

“We have to protect parental rights. And that is the concept of this bill. Bringing it to the federal standards, and protecting parental rights,” Nashua Republican Sen. Kevin Avard told a committee of lawmakers last week.

A nearly identical version of the bill passed the Senate and the House last year before being vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat.

But researchers, school administrators, and mental health and sexual violence advocates are all pushing back, saying the legislation could make it impossible to get reliable data about how programs are working on issues like bullying, dating violence and drug abuse.

A law passed in 2015 already requires that schools notify parents 10 days before a survey is administered and let them opt their children out. But opponents say a requirement that parents actively opt in, which SB 43 seeks, could significantly depress participation in surveys – especially by marginalized students. That could make certain survey samples unreliable or even useless, opponents say.

The bill does include one compromise, Avard said – it doesn’t apply to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey administered every two years nationwide.

But critics of the bill say that, while the YRBS is useful, it doesn’t provide enough granular and up-to-date information.

The YRBS, for example, found that more than 1 in 10 New Hampshire teens reported being the victim of sexual dating violence, and that a little over a fifth reported being bullied.

What to do about it? Administrators across the state are trying out programs to address those problems. And researchers at the University of New Hampshire are tracking student attitudes at more than a dozen New Hampshire high schools to see how those programs work over time.

“SB43 would make this work more difficult, expensive, and unreliable, potentially limiting our ability to continue this work in our state. Without this evaluation research, it will be challenging for administrators to accurately determine the effectiveness and efficiency of their programs,” Thomas Cronin, a spokesperson for UNH, wrote in an email.

School counselors are also criticizing the bill. At Laconia High School, counseling department head Wendy Hamill said teachers and administrators have been working on strengthening school climate. The department recently surveyed students to ask whether they had an adult in the building they felt comfortable talking to.

“The results provided us the opportunity to identify those students who didn’t have an adult in the building that they had a positive relationship with and reach out to them in order to improve their experience here,” she said.

Avard, for his part, told the Senate Education Committee he understood the bill could get in the way of getting good information.

“There would be definitely skewed results. There is no doubt. But the concern is not whether the results are great or perfect. The point of this bill is to protect the parents’ rights as the guardians and the gatekeepers of this information,” he said.

The bill passed the Senate, 13-10, in a mostly party-line vote. New Castle Sen. Dan Innis was the lone Republican to vote against it.

Innis had earlier suggested an amendment to the bill that would have exempted research that had received approval from an institutional review board – a federally approved committee that reviews the ethics of any research conducted with humans. Senators did not include the amendment.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu hasn’t yet said whether he supports the bill, and his office declined to comment.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)