Some Kansas Teachers Say a Ban on Surveys is Putting Some Classroom Lessons on Hold

Wichita, KS — A new law requiring Kansas schools to get parental permission before surveying students’ personal attitudes or beliefs has put lessons on hold in many schools.

The law doesn’t go as far as a proposed Parents’ Bill of Rights that Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed last spring. But it’s raising similar questions and fears among teachers that routine classroom discussions might now be illegal.

“(Teachers) might do a kind of get-to-know-you survey, and it says, ‘What did you do on your summer vacation?’” said Leah Fliter, assistant director of the Kansas Association of School Boards. “They’re concerned that somebody’s gonna say, ‘Well, you can’t ask my kids that, because that says too much about our family structure.’ Whether that’s what the intent was, I don’t know. But that certainly has been the effect.”

The new requirement that took effect July 1 is part of the school funding law passed by the Kansas Legislature last spring. It requires schools to tell parents in writing if they plan to administer any “non-academic test, questionnaire, survey or examination” that includes questions about personal “attitudes, values, beliefs or practices.”

Parents must get a copy of the survey in advance and schools can’t issue a general opt-in form that covers any potential questionnaire. Parental permission is now also required for anything that asks about the personal beliefs of a student’s parents, extended family members, friends or peers.

“The law is somewhat broadly written and so people are afraid that there are going to be legal challenges,” Fliter said. “There’s no ill intent there, but there’s the concern of how it could be twisted.”

A primary target of the new law was the annual Kansas Communities that Care survey, which aims to collect a de facto snapshot of Kansas students’ well-being and safety. Every year since 1995, the optional survey has tracked risk behaviors like drug and alcohol use, bullying and mental health among the state’s sixth-, eighth-, tenth- and 12th-graders.

Last year’s survey showed a years-long upward trend in mental health issues, including a significant increase in the number of students reporting feelings of sadness or hopelessness. The survey is funded by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and is often cited by state and local policymakers.

During a meeting of the Special Committee on Education in the Kansas Statehouse last year, parents raised concerns about students being asked probing questions related to their religious or political beliefs, as well as about drug use, sexual behavior and suicide.

Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a Republican from Coldwater, introduced legislation requiring parents to explicitly opt-in to such surveys. That provision made it into the final version of the school funding bill.

Republican Rep. Kristey Williams of Augusta, who championed the new requirement, said traditional opt-in forms at the start of a school year don’t give parents enough information about the types of questions on some surveys.

“As a parent of four, I may have opted-in … when I digitally enroll my kid,” Williams said. “But I had no idea the length to which our students were being questioned.”

Since the new rule went into effect, some Kansas schools have put social and emotional lessons on hold as they await guidance from state officials.

At Derby High School, south of Wichita, Principal Tim Hamblin briefly suspended social-emotional lessons that happen during homeroom for about 20 minutes a week.

During a unit about trust, Derby High teachers may prompt discussion by asking students: Describe a time you have lost the trust of someone? What happened, and how did you feel? A conversation about perseverance might begin: What does motivation mean to you? What motivates you personally?

Because the lessons involve asking students questions about personal attitudes, “I want to make sure I fully understand and comply with this law,” Hamblin said in an email to KMUW.

State education officials say everyday classroom discussions — about character traits or the themes in a novel — shouldn’t run up against the new law. Schools need parental permission only if they plan to collect and retain any personal data.

Williams, the Republican legislator, said the intent of the law should be clear.

“You are absolutely fine to ask questions of your kids,” she said. “If I’m reading ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and I want to talk about the concept of love or forgiveness or greed or dominance, I could certainly do all of those things.

“What we are saying in the law is that there is a pretty dramatic increase in the amount of surveying that is going on in our schools,” Williams said, “and parents need to know and be informed first.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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