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American Preparatory Academy wants a waiver to skip Utah’s School Climate Survey

The main entrance of American Preparatory Academy West Valley 1 Campus at 1255 Crystal Ave, West Valley City on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.
Martha Harris
The main entrance of American Preparatory Academy West Valley 1 Campus at 1255 Crystal Ave, West Valley City on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

This spring, school districts and charter schools across Utah will administer an anonymous, optional survey to students, parents and staff to gauge how they feel about their school environment. It’s called the School Climate Survey.

But one set of schools is trying to opt out of the process completely.

The governing board of American Preparatory Academy, which has six public charter schools in Utah, is requesting a waiver from the Utah State Board of Education so that they do not have to give the survey to any of their students.

In 2019, the Utah Legislature passed a law that directed the State Board of Education to create a model school climate survey and required every school in Utah to disseminate its own.

Instead of having lawmakers decide the questions, the Republican sponsor behind the law, Rep. Ray Ward, said it allowed for considerable leeway.

So, the State Board of Education created rules that said districts and charter schools had to use the questions in the state’s model, however they did have the flexibility to add their own questions.

The first survey was conducted in 2021, with questions differing based on a student’s grade. Students were asked about how they feel at school, what their school is like, how often bullying occurs and demographic information like their gender, age and race.

The American Preparatory Academy board outlined two problems it has with the survey.

First, it said the schools lack the legal standing to administer the survey.

A letter addressed to State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson from the American Preparatory Academy’s attorney, David Mortensen, points to a section of state code that says unless schools have received parental consent, they can not administer “any psychological or psychiatric examination, test, or treatment, or any survey, analysis, or evaluation” that is meant to reveal certain information, such as their sexual orientation or “mental or psychological problems.”

During a March board meeting, American Preparatory Academy Executive Director Carolyn Sharette presented this code as a law that was recently passed.

“We felt like some of those questions definitely fell into the category of the new 2022 law, that prohibits us from sending these surveys without express written parental permission after the parents have seen the questions,” Sharette told board members.

The language actually comes from a law that was passed in 1994. The section was last updated in 2022, but lawmakers only made technical changes. The parents’ rights group Utah Parents United used a very similar argument in 2021 and alleged that a different school survey violated the same section of state code.

Rep. Ward said he was not able to comment on whether the law that he sponsored was in conflict with state code and would have to look more closely at it. Generally, however, he said he thinks of a psychological examination as something that is done by a health care professional and is in-depth.

“I think there needs to be an ability to ask how students are doing that is not really a psychological evaluation. You’re just trying to figure out what’s going well for them and what’s making things miserable for them,” Ward said.

Second, the board said the survey violates school policies and values. Including a legal concern Sharette said they have with a section that asks students if they are male or female. Students can circle “male,” “female,” or “prefer not to say.”

“In my opinion, it’s [the question is] definitely seeking information about an attitude on a sexual issue,” she said.

The letter states this question violates the schools’ policies.

“APA has found that after reading questions like this, some students asked why would they ‘prefer not to say whether they are a boy or a girl.’ APA’s policies prohibit teachers and other staff from answering such questions, which require explanations about transgenderism and sexuality,” the letter reads.

Sharette said they tested out the questions, with parental permission, on two students. Both had questions about why “prefer not to say” was an option.

A footnote in the letter adds that the question asking a student to identify their race or ethnicity violates the academy’s values.

“APA believes that teaching children to make divisions and identifications based on nationality, ethnicity, and race promotes racist thinking,” the letter reads.

Sharette said the main concern right now is whether it is legal for the school to disseminate the survey. However, she also said she thinks the survey was poorly designed and does not think surveying kids, generally, is helpful.

“That's kind of a matter of our understanding that there's a huge power differential between a minor student and a government representative, which is what our teachers are,” Sharette said.

The academy is requesting a waiver that would take effect immediately, meaning students would not take the survey this year. If that is not possible, the academy’s board is asking for the State Board of Education to list out what content needs to be in the survey and then the academy can create its own survey.

No other school districts or charter schools have received a waiver like the one the academy is asking for, according to the State Board of Education’s waiver webpage.

Ryan Bartlett, director of strategic communications for the State Board of Education, said the school board is unable to comment on this waiver request at the moment since it’s still being reviewed. He said the goal of the climate survey is to inform decisions made by state board members, local board members and lawmakers

“The purpose of it is to just make a better environment for our students going to our schools,” Bartlett said. “Just trying to make a safer environment, more inclusive environment for students.”

When asked about parental consent for the survey, Bartlett said parents can be involved at every step. They can take the survey themselves, raise concerns to the board, or even have their child opt out.

The waiver request is on the agenda for the State Charter School Board meeting on April 13. Since American Prep is a charter school, they have to submit the waiver request first to the State Charter School Board, which will decide if they can recommend the waiver to the Utah State Board of Education. Only the Utah State Board of Education is able to grant waivers to board rules.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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