Santa Monica-Malibu high school students will be asked to take part in a health survey next month following a Board of Education decision Monday night to approve the controversial student questionnaire over the objections of a small but vocal group of parents.
The board unanimously approved the voluntary health survey for students in grades 9 through 12, with a provision requiring that each student bring a written permission slip signed by parents.
The 10-page survey contains questions ranging from how many cigarettes a student smokes in a day to how many times the student has had sexual intercourse. The survey also asks about drug and alcohol abuse, eating habits and medical history.
Monday's decision to approve the survey ended a two-month debate, during which a small group of people opposed to the questionnaire charged that some district officials would use the survey to justify the creation of a school-based health clinic to promote birth control.
The district's Community Health Advisory Council, a group of about 50 parents and health professionals, had overwhelmingly approved the idea of a survey. The board had several heated sessions on the matter before this week's vote was taken.
"Quite frankly, we have aired it enough," said board President Peggy Lyons, a supporter of the survey who also served on the advisory council. "I feel good that it finally passed."
Lyons said letters in English and in Spanish will be sent to parents describing the questionnaire's purpose as to "gather information that will help determine the health needs of the students." The information, she added, will be used to help the district decide how to best use its nurses and other health-related resources.
School Board vs. Parents
Thomas Kayn, a dissident member of the advisory council, criticized the board's decision. "The survey basically symbolizes the attitude that the school board thinks it is better qualified to influence the social and health habits of students than parents are," he said.
Opponents of the survey had included two board members, Robert Holbrook and Della Barrett. But they voted in favor of it after parental permission was required and after it became clear that the survey would be strictly voluntary and anonymous.
Holbrook, who had stormed out of an earlier meeting in a dispute over the issue, said he voted for the survey after school health teachers convinced him that the information from the survey would be used to help update their curriculum. He said he was also pleased that the city's Commission on the Status of Women would provide $1,000 to fund the survey.
Despite this, Holbrook said he believes that the survey "will provide no new information on the health needs of our students."
He also said he would vote against any recommendation to use the information gathered in the survey to support the establishment of a clinic. "I couldn't in all good conscience spend money on a clinic, because it would be a tremendous financial drain on the district," he said.
The heated controversy surrounding the survey is one of the reasons the board decided to survey the students in May rather than later in the year.
Lyons said that by circulating the questionnaires in May, the board would prevent the survey from becoming a "major political issue" in November, when three board seats are up for election. "No one wanted to see the entire election campaign revolving around a questionnaire," she said. She also said that surveying this year will allow the district to to gauge the attitudes and experiences of this year's graduating senior class. And a survey in the fall would require additional manpower because of all the other registration information student are required to hand in.
Lyons said the district is required by state law to have parental permission for each student taking the survey because of the sensitive nature of the questions. Copies of the questionnaire will be made available for parents at schools in the district two weeks before the students are surveyed.
"It is important that parents send back the slips indicating whether or not they want their children to take the survey," she said. "What we are hoping for is a well-rounded representation of students to take part in the survey."