Attorney General says parents’ OK not needed for student health survey

Photo: Youths smoke marijuana, Denver 4/20 rally, Civic Center Park, 2013(AP Photo)
Youths smoke marijuana at the Denver 4/20 pro-marijuana rally at Civic Center Park in Denver, Saturday, April 20, 2013.

Colorado teenagers can take a health survey without needing their parents’ approval ahead of time, according to a formal ruling issued Wednesday by Colorado’s Attorney General.

The biennial survey that asks middle and high school students a range of questions about sex, drugs, physical health and suicide has stirred controversy with some members of the Colorado State School Board. Some members feel some questions are inappropriate. They have argued that parents should have to give permission before their kids take the survey.

Right now, students can take the Healthy Kids Colorado survey unless their parents sign a form opting them out. The Attorney General’s opinion said such “passive consent” is legal because the survey is not “required.” The ruling also stated that because the survey is not a survey issued by the federal Department of Education, it doesn’t require prior parental consent.

The Attorney General said that the state school board has discretion to make a factual inquiry into what students are told prior to taking the survey and whether notice to parents includes information about how to opt out of a survey.

If a school district chooses to participate in the survey, parents of students in classrooms selected to participate get a notification letter which explains the anonymous survey.

During Wednesday’s state board of education meeting, a couple of parents spoke against the survey.

“You are invading and, in my opinion, raping my children’s mind,” said Anita Stapleton, citing data privacy concerns. The survey is anonymous.

However, testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of preserving the survey. Scores of health officials and parents have testified over the course of two board meetings that requiring permission ahead of time would drastically reduce participation rates. They say the information is crucial to providing support and targeting programs to youth in need.

Taylor Stein, youth advocacy coordinator with Colorado Youth Matter, testified at Wednesday’s meeting.

“When we don’t ask these questions or acknowledge the problems that young people are facing,” he said, "we are telling them that their problems do not matter, that we do not want to talk about them.”

He noted that the last survey showed LGBTQ youth are six times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers. He said the survey allows the state to work on prevention programs such as anti-bullying programs, rather than simply react to crises.

The Healthy Kids Colorado survey is designed to monitor behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth. It has multiple choice questions on risky behavior including alcohol use, tobacco use, substance abuse, sexual behavior and physical health.

The St. Vrain Valley School District will no longer participate in the statewide survey because it plans to start its own, the Boulder Daily Camera reported Wednesday.