Recent surveys given to the county’s public schools students are drawing objections from some parents who say the questions being asked are invasive and inappropriate.
Three surveys, administered this spring to Pitt County Schools’ on-campus and virtual students in grades three-12, asked questions about students’ emotional well-being, including feelings about school and relationships. One survey asked students to include their name and contact information if they wanted to talk privately with an adult from their school. A survey to be completed by students in grades six-12 asked students to indicate whether their gender was “female,” “male” or “prefer to self-describe.” Students who selected the third option were asked to describe their gender.
That was problematic for parent and educator Wendy Gray Hudnell, who has asked the school district to destroy students’ responses, including all personal information.
“Why would the school system need to know questions like (that)?” said Hudnell, whose 13-year-old son attends Chicod School. “How does that relate to academics? To me, they’re way too personal.”
A letter to the school district from from Hudnell’s attorney, Donald R. Stroud Jr., said the surveys, administered in partnership with a third-party vendor, were in violation of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act and a school district policy that requires prior written consent if a survey asks students about information including mental or psychological problems or sex behavior or attitudes.
School district attorney Emma J. Hodson said in a response to Stroud that the surveys, administered as part of a state Department of Public Instruction requirement for evaluating social emotional learning, do not violate FERPA or district policy.
Still some parents, including Cristina Jones are declining to have their children participate. Jones, whose son is a seventh-grader at A.G. Cox Middle School, said when she read a notice from the school announcing the students were to complete surveys regarding their mindsets and approaches to learning, she contacted the school’s counselor to opt out.
“I had already been looking into these surveys that I heard schools were giving,” Jones said. “I felt like there was a deeper agenda to the survey other than to just check on my child’s well-being and how he was doing in school. So when I got that letter, it sent up a red flag for me.”
Sloan Rachmuth, president of Education First Alliance, a conservative, North Carolina-based students’ rights advocacy group, said parents have a reason to be concerned.
“A survey in and of itself isn’t problematic if parents are notified,” Rachmuth said in an interview this week. “The survey is a problem if it’s very clear that it’s to ascertain what a diagnosis is to be able to give treatment.”
Rachmuth, whose organization opposes schools’ promoting critical race theory, spoke Monday to an audience of about 40 people attending “Strong Parent Bootcamp” at Homeplace of Ayden. Two Pitt County Board of Education members, District 6 representative Worth Forbes and District 9 representative Benjie Forrest, were among those attending Monday’s meeting.
Forbes said in a telephone interview following the meeting that he had received several complaints from parents about the surveys and said most of the parents who contacted him objected to the phrasing of the question about gender. He said he was unaware of the phrasing of that question until parents called it to his attention.
“I think as a system, we really need to communicate in a matter in which all parents would understand that there’s a survey coming out, maybe giving them the questions so that they can review them,” he said.
Forrest did not reply to a request for an interview.
Rachmuth said the surveys, which are being conducted across the country, are a violation of students’ rights.
“We all know that transparency is for the government and privacy is for the citizens,” she said. “What has happened in the last year has flipped it completely.
“Make no mistake. This it the government turning children into spies.”
Rachmuth said that her organization is considering filing a lawsuit regarding the surveys, “one that will encompass many school districts and that may include plaintiffs who have been damaged.”
Hudnell, who helped to organize the meeting, said she and her husband have not filed a lawsuit but were looking for answers to their complaint.
“I’m not usually one to put things out there and be confrontational,” she said. “But when it involves our children, especially being a former school administrator, it bothered me what our children were receiving without us being notified.”
Hodson’s letter said the school system “will provide more precise notice should we undertake future surveys.”
Pitt County Schools Public Information Officer Jennifer Johnson said that a letter informing parents of the survey was posted for two weeks on CANVAS, an online learning management system that students in the district use. She said Chicod School put information about the upcoming surveys on its Facebook page and included notifications in weekly phone calls and emails to parents.
“Surveys are not new for our school system,” Johnson said, adding that school climate surveys for students and parents are routine, and the district participates in the Centers for Disease Control’s “Youth Risk Behavior” survey every two years.
The CDC survey is anonymous. But Johnson said the district told parents in a letter posted on CANVAS on March 31 that the spring surveys were confidential, not anonymous, and that a third-party vendor was supporting the school system in administering the surveys.
Hodson said the vendor, Panorama, was being used by a number of school systems in the state to collect student reports of engagement. She said Pitt County Schools used CARES Act funding to purchase a software license from Panorama in the summer of 2020.
Hudnell, a former Pitt County Schools exceptional children’s pre-kindergarten director, said she recalls giving anonymous surveys to families when she worked for the system. She left in 2012.
“In my experiences with being an administrator, everything should be data driven, and these are not data-driven questions,” she said. “They’re leading questions.
“Some of the answers of ‘Do you care for a sick grandparent?’ also set you up for where you could have a DSS (Department of Social Services) caseworker show up.”
Jones said that because students took the surveys by logging into their CANVAS accounts, it is impossible for them to be anonymous.
“Your access code is your student ID,” she said. “So regardless, even if you didn’t put your name on the survey, it automatically still connects to your student ID.
“If my child were to put down, 'Yes, I need to speak with someone,' is that information going to come back to the parent that this child feels like they’re having some problem?” Jones said. “As a parent, for me it’s concerning that this information is being shared with the school. Where is that going?”