SANTA ANA : Schools Yield to U.S. on Student Surveys

The Santa Ana Unified School District has averted the potential loss of $12.4 million in federal funds by complying with a demand that it turn over to the government about 1,000 student surveys commissioned as part of a national dropout prevention program.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of whether the school district should have sought permission from parents before surveying students on issues that could be considered personal--such as whether their family receives welfare.

Several board members were upset about the personal nature of the survey and balked at the idea of returning the questionnaires to the U.S. Department of Education as planned. But the government warned last month that the district would run the risk of losing millions of dollars in current and future education funds if it carried through on the threat.

At its regular meeting Tuesday, the Board of Education voted 3 to 2 to comply, despite objections that the surveys were conducted improperly and without prior parental consent.

Trustees Robert W. Balen, Audrey Yamagata-Noji and Sal Mendoza voted to release the 1992 surveys to the Education Department, which funds the dropout-prevention program. Trustees Tom Chaffee and Rosemarie Avila opposed the release.

About 3,800 students completed the confidential questionnaire, which the Education Department says it will use to determine how the program is working. The agency will review 1,000 surveys and the district will destroy the rest, said district spokeswoman Diane Thomas.

Chaffee charged at the board meeting that the district violated the state education code in administering the 18-page surveys because they contained personal questions and were given without prior parental consent.

"To do this without parent permission I think was really uncalled for," Chaffee said.

He maintained that the district should have destroyed the surveys, administered them a second time and offered parents in the district an apology.

However, in separate written opinions, attorneys for the Education Department and Mathmatica Policy Research Inc., which developed the surveys, concluded that the questions never intruded on students' privacy. Therefore, no parental permission was required, said Susan Despenas, an assistant to the district superintendent .

Still, she added that a third attorney, for the Orange County Department of Education, determined that some of the questions could potentially trigger the parental consent requirement.

The family-related questions included: "How far in school do you think your father wants you to get?" "Does your family currently receive money from welfare?" and "How often do your parents tell you specifically that you shouldn't drink alcohol or use drugs?"

After Chaffee raised his concerns about the survey in January, the district then received parental permission retroactively for each of the 1,000 students whose surveys are being returned to the government, Despenas said.

Despenas said the district received $1.4 million this year for the dropout program and expects about $1.2 million next year. The district stood to lose as much as $12.4 million if it were dropped from its federally funded programs.

Chaffee said he never intended to jeopardize the district's funding.

"It's gotten so far out of proportion that the federal government has threatened us with the loss of $12 million," he said. "All I wanted was parental permission."

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