School administrators mishandled distribution of survey with questions about sexual topics
By JEFF EPSTEIN
WINDSOR, Vt. — A furious audience of more than 50 people, many of them parents of fifth graders, unleashed a torrent of vocal criticism at the Windsor School Board Thursday evening, in a special board meeting set up to address the controversy over a survey released to fifth graders with sexually-related questions.
About 20 people spoke to the board in the auditorium of the Windsor school during the 90-minute event, and nearly all were disturbed by the survey, upset that the permission procedures called for “opt-out” rather than “opt-in,” and critical of the board for its handling of communication around the matter.
The survey was designed by the University of New Hampshire at the request of the WISE social service agency, as an evaluation tool for its curriculum around body safety and anti-violence.
However, WISE received far less criticism from the parents than the board did, and several speakers came to the microphone specifically to plead for WISE’s curriculum to not be tossed out with the surveys.
A woman from WISE, giving her name only as Chelsea, apologized for the survey and explained that it was not intended to gather student-identifiable information about students, but was seeking general information as an evaluation of its curriculum.
After Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent David Baker gave a recap of how the survey came to be distributed, he conceded that “balls were dropped” and sending permission forms in student backpacks was probably not the most effective method of alerting parents.
The parents were there to speak to the board, however, and eventually were able to do so. Several related stories of how their children were uncomfortable with the questions regarding gender identity, dating, and other topics the parents felt were inappropriate for 10-year-olds.
“There are no excuses,” said Cory Fletcher, the mother of one of the fifth graders. Another mother, noting that she routinely signs off on many school activities, said she was dismayed she had no signature requirement for this survey. Several others told the board they felt the same.
Many audience members called on the board to be more transparent and give parents more information ahead of time, and listen to their concerns. Nearly every speaker requested that the board change permission methods on surveys to “opt-in” and require their signature. Baker said this would be considered at the next regular meeting.
The board listened intently, but was also interested in talking. At least one board member usually responded to each of the statements, usually chair Amy McMullen. At one point in the meeting, McMullen took time to read some of the questions from a published copy of the survey. That made the upsetting words come out of her mouth, and led to catcalls and boos from angry audience members, as though the board had written the questions. McMullen then allowed the next person at the microphone to speak.
The board, Baker, and school principal Tiffany Cassano all apologized profusely to the audience and promised a survey problem like this would not be allowed to recur. The completed surveys have been locked in a secure location, Cassano said. McMullen said they would be destroyed.