Saturday 24 July 2021

A School District Asked To Survey Students About Private Matters. The Uproar Was Inevitable.

 Officials in one Arizona school district are learning just how seriously families take privacy after parents were asked to consent to letting their children be questioned about a checklist of sensitive subjects including illegal behavior, income, and gun ownership. The district quickly backtracked, claiming the consent form hadn't been properly vetted and that such private information would never be sought. The survey is voluntary, officials emphasized. But the damage is done and the consent form has erupted into yet another political battle over government-dominated education.

The issue blew up on social media earlier this week when the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) uploaded to the parent portal a form asking for consent to social-emotional screening of students.

"The electronic signature attached to this Annual Verification packet authorizes SUSD to complete an emotional health and wellness screening of my child and to collect personal information including but not limited to income or other family information, medical history or medical information, mental health history or mental health information, and quality of home and interpersonal relationships, student biometric information, or illegal, antisocial or self-incriminating behavior critical appraisal of individuals within a close relationship and gun/ammunition ownership," the form read.

The reaction was fast and furious.

"Scottsdale USD wants to evaluate my family's income, medical and mental health history, my child's 'biometric' info, as well as our gun and ammo ownership. No thanks!" Twitter user Amanda Wray tweeted in response.

"It went viral as soon as many parents started reacting to it," Shiry Sapir, who just enrolled her three-year-old in a SUSD preschool, told me. "Just know the verbiage comes straight out of statute 15-117. Almost word by word. They tried to overpass the statute with that consent which is so wrong."

Sapir, who earlier this year filed a statement of interest as a first step in seeking the Republican nomination for Superintendent of Public Instruction, pointed to a state law passed in 2016 (the aforementioned statute 15-117) that requires public schools to get parental consent before asking about a laundry list of topics, many of which were included in the SUSD consent form with the same phrasing. The implication was that the school district planned to seek information deemed so sensitive that it was specifically protected by law.

"So the bottom line is that we made a mistake, initially uploading a parent/guardian consent form document that had not been properly vetted by the district before it was posted – that's what raised the completely valid concerns of some of our families earlier this week," SUSD representative Nancy Norman told me via email. "Fastbridge SEL screening is a completely optional undertaking," she added about the social-emotional learning program developed by Minneapolis-based FastBridge Learning. "It is parents' choice whether to have their children take part in it."

The district sent the same message to parents in a statement responding to the uproar. The consent form, the statement emphasized, was for an optional screener that had been adopted district-wide in May after being used earlier for grades K through 3.

"Notwithstanding this, SUSD's initial parent acknowledgment form incorrectly stated that the FastBridge screener might ask for personal information about income, family matters, medical or family medical history, mental health history and other categories of private information. To be clear, the FastBridge screener does not and has never sought this information."

The statement pointed parents to a web page for FastBridge's Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener program. As of the 2018-2019 school year, the company's assessments were used in 45 states. Online screening examples focus on behavioral issues and not on the sensitive information detailed in the SUSD consent form.

Overall, then, the SUSD appears to have been its own worst enemy, carelessly asking parents to consent to the questioning of their children about sensitive topics that aren't actually addressed by the assessment program it adopted. Bureaucratic clumsiness predictably produced outrage from families primed to expect the worst by years of politicized schooling and battles over the ideological content of classroom lessons.

After months of controversy over the introduction of racially charged curricula in classrooms, following on decades of conflicts over the political spin school officials put on lessons, it's difficult to think of a more effective way of angering parents than to tell them you want to question their kids about income, illegal activity, and gun ownership. Many people already assume that schools are agents of enemy political factions; such intrusive interrogation is guaranteed to set them off. The furious reaction was inevitable in a society of diverse values and points of view that funnels most kids into a state monopoly on education (you're allowed to opt out—but only so long as you continue paying for the state schools). Actually, the reaction was not just inevitable but anticipated long ago.

In On Liberty, published in 1859, John Stuart Mill advocated requiring children to be educated, but not letting government operate schools. He said it was best to "leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased" with government doing no more than paying tuition for those in need to avoid "difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties." 

A century-and-a-half later, having maintained government as the default operator of schools, we've also maintained their continuing status as battlefields. As a result, parents assume the worst when educators make controversial decisions about curricula or threaten to interrogate children about their home lives.

"I will be introducing legislation to stop schools from asking any of these very personal & invasive questions," vowed Arizona Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) in an indication that the controversy won't disappear soon.

Ultimately, the only way to settle these eternal struggles over schooling is to "leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased" for their children. They'll be free to pick education models of which they approve and so won't feel the need to turn every lesson plan and screening tool into yet another battle over access to young minds. That has to be better than continuing distrust and conflict.

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