Opinion: Parents beware. Georgia's student health survey is invasive and insidious.

Jane Robbins  of Atlanta is an attorney and senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank. In this piece, she discusses the state's Student Health Survey and why she opposes it.

By Jane Robbins

It’s springtime in Georgia, which means public schools are administering the Georgia Student Health Survey 2.0. Developed by the Georgia Department of Education along with the Department of Public Health and a “school climate” organization at Georgia State University, this survey is designed to identify “safety and health issues that have a negative impact on student achievement and school climate.” One version of the survey is administered in grades 3-5, the other in grades 6-10.

Parents are supposedly notified about the survey in advance and allowed to opt their children out of participating. Parents should do so – if it’s too late this year, then next year and every year thereafter.

Nov. 7, 2013 - Atlanta - Jane Robbins spoke against Common Core during the public comment period at a state board of education meeting. BOB ANDRES/BANDRES@AJC.COM

Such student surveys are all the rage across the country. One reason is the relentless transformation of schools from founts of academic knowledge, as they traditionally have been, to therapeutic institutions with assumed authority to assess children’s physical and mental health and well-being. The government is evaluating mindsets and attitudes, the better to shape schoolchildren into the kinds of the government wants them to be.

This trend is bolstered by the recent fed-ed bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which encourages schools to include such non-academic measures in their accountability ratings. It’s bad enough that the feds demand accountability – which should be to parents, not federal or state bureaucrats – but it’s even worse that they dictate how that accountability should look. So much for the bi-partisan propaganda that ESSA ended federal education mandates.

Anyway, for years Georgia DOE has proudly ridden the progressive wave in education, and its Student Health Survey 2.0 is a good example. In addition to being asked about their feelings about school, children in grades 3-5 are queried whether they’ve been hit or kicked, targeted by rumors or threats, or picked on by being left out. In simpler times, principals and teachers handled these problems as they saw fit (in less severe cases, wisely, by allowing children to work them out on their own); now, the state bureaucracy must know about it.

But the truly objectionable questions come in grades 6-10. Some seek to ferret out positive or negative moral characteristics, by asking students to agree or disagree with statements such as “Doing the right thing is important to me” and “Honesty is an important trait to me.” The DOE claims the answers are anonymous, and given the construction of a cradle-to-career database on all students, parents should pray that’s true. What student wants a college or potential employer to discover this applicant doesn’t care about honesty?

But the worst questions concern health and behaviors: “In the past 30 days, on how many days did you have at least one drink of alcohol? Smoke cigarettes? Use marijuana, heroin, cocaine? Binge drink? Drive a car while under the influence? Run with gangs? Consider suicide? Attempt suicide?” Although the student may choose the response “0 days,” the wording of the question suggests that the school/government expects students to have engaged in some of this behavior (consider the question, “Where do your friends usually use alcohol or tobacco?”).

Raising the issues in this manner normalizes the behavior. Imagine asking your 11-year-old out of the blue if he had stolen something from a store. The question alone suggests to him that even if you disapprove of shoplifting, it falls within the realm of expected behavior.

The same problem exists with the questions asking students how old they were when they first did all these things. True, they can choose the “never used” or similar response, but the suggestion is firmly implanted now that the government expects this conduct from preteens and teenagers.

It’s worth mentioning that the validity of student surveys is questionable at best, and in the case of teenaged boys, utterly useless. Anyone who ever raised a male teenager can attest that boys will treat all this as a joke and provide the most outlandish answers imaginable. And although bureaucrats might assert the value of, for example, knowing if some students are suicidal, the survey is supposedly anonymous – so how can a positive response lead to help for a particular student?

But even if the surveys were valid, young people shouldn’t be exposed to them. In a world in which all boundaries of privacy are being erased, students should learn that no one other than their parents or (in some cases) doctor has the right to ask such questions – not even, or especially not, the government. Nor are students’ mindsets and attitudes any of the government’s business.

Parents, teach your children well. Opt out of the Georgia Student Health Survey.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.