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Utah lawmakers OK bill requiring parental permission for ‘non-academic’ school surveys

House Speaker Mike Schultz spoke during the first day of the 2024 Utah legislative session in Salt Lake City, Jan. 16, 2024.
Briana Scroggins
Special to KUER
House Speaker Mike Schultz spoke during the first day of the 2024 Utah legislative session in Salt Lake City, Jan. 16, 2024.

The Utah Legislature has passed a bill to require schools to get parental consent before giving students any “non-academic” surveys. It also allows school districts to opt out of administering a statewide student health and risk prevention survey without risking funding.

There are concerns, however, from groups that use the data, including local health departments and those who work in prevention programming.

Among other things, the bill targets surveys that ask about a student’s or their family’s mental or psychological problems, sexual behavior, gender identity, political affiliations and illegal behavior. While some of these surveys did previously require parental consent, like the Utah Student Health and Risk Prevention survey, others were “opt-out” – meaning schools would give the survey to all students unless a parent said otherwise.

Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee told the House Education Committee she created this bill because of concerns she heard from parents and teachers who said the surveys were taking up valuable instruction time.

Lisonbee did not respond to KUER’s request for comment.

Her bill requires that schools obtain written consent annually from parents in order to give out these kinds of surveys. It also adds that schools can’t reward or give students consequences for participating or not.

Parents and parents-rights advocates who testified in support of the bill brought up privacy concerns and said some parents weren’t aware of what was in these surveys. Some also claimed they were not age-appropriate and that by asking about drugs or alcohol, the surveys were putting ideas into students' heads.

Some parents specifically mentioned concerns with the Utah Student Health and Risk Prevention survey which is given to students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12. It asks about substance use, social and emotional health, and physical safety. Previously, school districts had to administer this survey to get grant funds for drug prevention programs, but Lisonbee’s bill has done away with that provision.

Carolyn Sharette, the executive director of American Preparatory Academy charter schools, testified in support of the bill. She said this bill respects that parents have the “primary role” in their children’s lives.

Sharette said American Preparatory Academy is against surveying minor children and that they requested a waiver last year so that they wouldn’t have to administer an anonymous, optional School Climate Survey to their students. Under the bill, schools no longer have to administer the model climate survey that the Utah State Board of Education created.

There have been similar efforts in other states to require parental permission on all surveys, rather than only allowing parents to “opt-out.”

This is one of the bills the Utah Association of Local Health Departments has listed as being concerned about.

Mara Hammer with Layton Communities that Care — a coalition of groups under the direction of the Davis County Health Department — told the House Education Committee the survey data is vital to their work. The organization’s website says it focuses on preventing substance use and improving mental health for youth.

Hammer said they use the data to run “evidence-based programs” and to know the best preventive measures to focus on.

“Without evidence, how can you run an evidence-based program?” she said.

Democratic Rep. Angela Romero echoed those concerns during the committee meeting. She said this data is important to her because she works with youth and prevention programming in Salt Lake City. “We need to know what's going on in our community,” she said, in order to provide effective services.

The Utah Education Association and the Utah State Board of Education did not take a stance on the bill. The Joint Legislative Committee run by the Utah School Board Association and Utah School Superintendents Association opposed it because they think districts should get to decide whether surveys should be opt-in or opt-out.

The bill awaits the signature of Gov. Spencer Cox. As long as he does not veto the bill, it’ll become law with or without his signature.

Corrected: February 20, 2024 at 10:07 AM MST
An earlier version of this story oversimplified the actions available to the governor now that the Legislature has passed the bill.
Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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