By Meghan Peterson
Editor’s Note: Some material contained within this article may not be suitable for children.
(June 4, 2023) — Some conversation among parents in town has centered on a survey that was distributed to students in the district during the early spring of this academic year.
Toward the end of March/early April, Regional School District #17 (RSD17) students in 7th and 8th grades at Haddam Killingworth Middle School (HKMS) took a survey. The survey is a product of an organization called The Search Institute, a nonprofit entity whose mission is to “promote positive youth development and advance equity through research and practical solutions,” per its website (searchinstitute.org).
The survey, comprising a maximum of 160 questions (following a skip logic pattern, meaning that for students who respond with “yes” to certain questions, additional questions follow; for students who respond with “no” to certain questions, then they “skip” those) is called the Attitudes & Behaviors Survey. According to the Search Institute’s website, the stated purpose of the survey is to provide “a snapshot of the current experiences and perspectives of your adolescent youth in your school” and “emphasizes the strengths and supports they currently have and need, and how those positive indictors protect against youth risk behavior.”
According to HK Youth & Family Services (HKYFS) Interim Executive Director Jen Favalora, who is also Vice Chair of the RSD17 Board of Education (BOE), highlights from the survey over the years include finding that underage drinking is down across the board in Haddam and Killingworth communities and that a majority of HK youth report strong familial connections and support systems. Emily Rosenthal, MPH, LMSW and evaluator/consultant for HKYFS as well as for other various youth and family organizations in the state, explains that the survey data are used to “gauge community needs.”
According to RSD17 Superintendent Jeff Wihbey, the district values its “partnership with families and parents” and points out the “value of the survey” – for example, the information that comes from the survey and how it can support the community. He wants “to make sure that parents and families trust us…trust with our families is important to us.” When it comes to the survey, Wihbey notes that he always “insists that HKYFS allow parents to preview it” and that if the options of previewing and opting out of the survey had not been available to families, it would have been a “deal breaker.”
Through conversation with parents for this article, a primary source of concern stems from two batches of questions within the survey. In particular, these questions focus on the student’s gender identity/expression as well as the extent of the respondent’s sexual experiences.
According to Favalora and Rosenthal, these batteries of questions have been in the Search Institute survey since 2010, and this survey has been administered biennially (every two years) to RSD17 students since 2006. In other words, this is not the first time that these survey questions have been presented to HK students (although, this spring marks the first time this cohort of 7th & 8th grade students have seen these questions).
Some parents voice concern about the appropriateness of the content contained within these inquiries to 7th & 8th graders while others express dismay with the entire process by which the survey was announced and distributed.
Some have expressed disapproval with the way in which information was made available about the survey, which they indicate was embedded within a litany of regular, weekly recap/update material in an e-mail from the school. The link to the survey, moreover, was accidentally distributed to 6th graders at HKMS, despite the fact that the district has historically given the survey for 7th-12th grade students. Finally, the link was sent to all students – including those students whose parents had chosen to opt them out of the survey prior to the scheduled date.
Questions have arisen about the way information about the survey was handled, the survey, and some of the content within the survey – and the relevance of this to a school day activity.
According to several parents of HKMS students, a link to the Attitudes & Behaviors survey was sent to all 6th, 7th, and 8th graders via the Google Classroom platform that they utilize for their coursework. This link was available to all students – including 6th graders (who were not intended to be participants in the survey) as well as those students whose parents had decided they were not to take the survey. The link was subsequently taken down after parents notified school personnel of the error. One resident of Higganum and parent to an HKMS student, who spoke with Haddam Killingworth News on condition of anonymity, contacted the school via e-mail on April 5, 2023. Below is a portion of that e-mail (Editor’s Note: wording in bold is by the article’s author):
Today, at 10:26am…the youth and family services survey link” was posted “under the Google classroom 2022-2023 announcements. This link was made available for every single student at HKMS to open, view and submit. It is my understanding that sixth graders are not part of the survey as well as any seventh and eighth grade student that was opted out by a parent. And yet, they all still received the survey link. By providing the survey to students who opted out is a direct violation of a parent’s request.”
This individual also described having “lots of trust in the school system” in the past but “doesn’t trust RSD17 at all” and is “done with this district.”
One parent to a 6th grader at HKMS, Steve Banaletti of Higganum, says that the whole “process could have been handled differently” and that he thinks there is a degree of normalizing “polarizing and intimate questions” being asked of children. Furthermore, he wishes that the Board of Education (BOE) had sent an e-mail apologizing to parents “for the mistakes.” In addition, Banaletti makes it clear that he wants the “belittling of those whom this survey bothers” to end.
Josh Broder, who moved to Haddam 15 years ago in “large part due to the [school] district” and has had a “really, really good experience with the school district,” describes his view that it has been “going downhill in the last few years.” On learning of the survey content and erroneous distribution to 6th grade students and those whose parents had opted out, Broder communicated with the school and per preliminary dialogue, there has been discussion about the inappropriateness of the survey “moving forward.” Finally, Broder points out that some solutions would be to remove the survey from the school day hours and make it an opt in activity rather than an opt out exercise. Moreover, he notes that this survey is an example of a “lot of concern” being raised “about our school district.”
Some parents have expressed support for the survey, pointing out its potential utility as a source of data to guide identification of community needs. Alli Behnke of Higganum, a social worker who works within the youth prevention services field and is also parent to two HKMS students, explains that she “whole-heartedly” supports the work of HKYFS and the survey. “In order for us to know where kids are at and get a temperature of substance abuse, mental health, how kids are feeling, what they know about family rules and values…having appropriate data is important to providing community services.” In addition, Behnke says that she “would invite families to use [the survey] as an opportunity to talk to their kids about important issues.” In the prevention work she does, Behnke notes that her field utilizes a similar survey instrument – although not The Search Institute survey. She points out that she “could never do the work that I do without knowing what is needed,” as each community is “so unique” in terms of needs and resources.
According to Jeff Sturges, of Haddam, and parent to an HKMS student, while he explains that “he was aware of [his daughter] taking the survey, I wasn’t aware of the true nature of the questions. When I first saw them, I was admittedly taken aback. However, after some consideration, my perspective changed…our job as parents is to prepare our children to be strong, independent adults in the world they live in…that is different than the one I navigated at their age, and comes at them faster than I might prefer…HKYFS and school are doing their part to prepare kids for the world.” In addition, Sturges explains that he and his wife “used the survey as an opportunity discuss the challenging topics it covered.”
Beyond the variety of perspectives described and underscored thus far, are potential ramifications the survey’s gender identity/expression and sexual experience questions have within the broader context of legality.
In Connecticut, the legal age of consent is 16. That sexually explicit inquiries are being asked to youth under the age of 16 may potentially raise issues about the age-appropriateness and legality of directing these questions to minors during the school day within an educational establishment. That questions about gender identity/expression are being asked of individuals who, under Connecticut state law, do not attain the age of majority (viewed as “adults”) until age 18, may potentially raise issues about directing these questions to youth in the first place.
Discussion throughout the community continues on the subject. As with many topics, the value of conversation and dialogue go to the heart of individuals being engaged as parents, school staff, community organization members and HK residents.