Coroner says D11’s proposed student survey policy could ‘sabotage’ youth mental health support

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Dr. Leon Kelly, El Paso County Coroner (Courtesy Dr. Kelly)

Dr. Leon Kelly, chief coroner and medical examiner for El Paso County, is urging Colorado Springs School District 11 to reject a policy change that would make all student surveys “opt-in” — requiring parents to give permission for children to take them — rather than the existing “opt-out” status. The D11 Board of Education is considering the new policy at a regular board meeting tonight (March 8.)

Kelly is concerned that the change would limit reliable survey results about student health, including mental health, and put families, public officials and organizations that support young people in the dark about what kids are going through emotionally. 

In a letter to Superintendent Michael Gaal and the board, Kelly says he is “disappointed and gravely concerned” with the change, proposed by board director Lauren Nelson, calling it “misguided.” He tells D11 that “Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse aren’t Beetlejuice, we don’t conjure them by simply speaking their name.” 

“We have come too far and have seen too much success to simply go back to the magical thinking dark ages of believing that if we don’t ask, somehow the problem doesn’t exist,” Kelly writes. “There is simply no moral, ethical, theological, educational or intellectual justification for why you wouldn’t ask a young person ‘how are you doing?’”

The full letter was shared with Sixty35 and can be found at the end of this story.

Kelly is primarily concerned about the policy’s effect on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a bi-annual survey administered by state agencies to understand youth health, including contributors to poor mental health. As coroner, Kelly investigates youth deaths by suicide and other causes, and founded the El Paso County Child Fatality Review Team to respond to a tragic spate of teen suicides in the county from 2015 to 2017.

At that time, “I had many conversations with grieving parents, panicked school administrators, and troubled elected officials who all asked me the same question, ‘why is this happening?’” Kelly writes. “I made a promise at that time to do everything we could to figure that out. 

“Our only hope to offer help is to understand what they are going through and what they need,” he writes. “That is exactly what the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey does.” 

D11 Board President Parth Melpakam emailed Sixty35 a statement on behalf of the board:

“The Board recognizes that our parents/guardians are the child’s first and lifelong teachers.  Any policy revisions that we collectively adopt will reflect our emphasis to honor our partnership with parents and respect the privacy of our students, while collecting survey data that will help our students thrive academically in a safe and inclusive school environment.”

Read Dr. Kelly’s open letter to D11 School Board here.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with an emailed response from the D11 board.

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