Five D11 board members respond to coroner’s letter on ‘misguided’ policy change

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Protesters in D11 on March 8 included Moms For Liberty – El Paso County, which favors a ban on staff asking students' pronouns and wants to prevent kids from taking the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey unless parents "opt in." (Photo by Bryan Oller)

Five members of the Colorado Springs School District 11 Board — including its four conservative members and its president — have responded to a March 8 letter from the El Paso County Coroner that urged them not to adopt new policy on student surveys that could “sabotage” youth mental health support.

Coroner and chief medical examiner Dr. Leon Kelly called on the board to keep the current “opt-out” standard for student surveys rather than requiring parent consent for surveys that ask sensitive questions, like the state’s Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which has historically been given to middle and high schoolers.

In their March 14 response, the five board members emphasized their concerns that administering the anonymous Healthy Kids Colorado Survey without parents’ direct consent “would undermine our trust and credibility with parents,” who “are the child’s first and lifelong teacher.” The letter was signed by Board President Parth Melpakam and the board’s conservative members — Vice President Jason Jorgensen, Sandra Bankes, Lauren Nelson and Al Loma. Directors Julie Ott and Darleen Daniels were not included — Ott has voiced her opposition to the conservative-led proposal for an “opt-in” standard.

The letter says: “One of the Board’s adopted priorities is to build trust with our parents/guardians by being transparent in everything that we do. I hope you can appreciate that were we to covertly administer this survey without active parent consent to minor students (as young as 11 years old), that would undermine our trust and credibility with parents. Furthermore, it is offensive to many in our community to assume that parents and guardians are not capable of making decisions that are in the best interest of their kids.”

To recap: Last week Dr. Kelly, as “the individual statutorily responsible for investigating youth deaths resulting from suicide, violence and substance abuse,” wrote to the D11 board to strongly advise against the “opt-in” standard, which would require parents to sign a permission form and could reduce the district’s participation rate on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. The county already struggles to get participation on the survey — in 2021, it did not have enough to gather usable data — and Kelly says it’s an important measure of young people’s mental health that helps guide educational and public health policy and resources.

“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,” wrote Kelly, who founded the El Paso County Child Fatality Review Team. 

“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 information we gain has and will continue to save lives.”

We covered Kelly’s letter here.

The D11 board then discussed the survey policy at a March 8 meeting, where some board members dismissed Kelly’s letter and said it wasn’t the district’s responsibility to be gathering data about students’ mental health. Jorgensen commented, “These questions have nothing to do with academics.”

“If this is data that the community wants to use on our kids, then let’s have El Paso County Health, the state Board of Health … administer this Healthy Kids school survey,” Jorgensen said. “It takes away instructional time from our classroom.

“We are responsible for the educational program of this district. That has nothing to do with emotional questions like this, that just distract us from the mission at hand.”

As the board discussed when to share survey results with parents (not specifically the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey results, but of all surveys administered in the district), Loma claimed above all else, D11 “serves the parents.”

“I think we’re forgetting we don’t serve the state, we don’t serve the county, we don’t serve D11, we serve the parents,” he said. “So in my opinion, whatever we have to do to make sure the parent is comfortable, then we just gotta do it.”

The March 14 letter reiterated these beliefs, and those of some community members who spoke during the March 8 meeting’s public comment period. 

Jennifer Bertram, a D11 parent who represented the conservative education activist group Moms For Liberty, complained that questions on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey did not relate to academics, and asked about gender identity and access to firearms in the home.

“‘How often did a parent or other adult in your home swear at you, insult you or put you down during the COVID-19 pandemic?’ ‘How often did a parent or other adult in your home hit, [beat], kick or physically hurt you in any way?’” Bertram said, quoting questions from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. 

“I find these questions to be very insulting, and have absolutely nothing to do with how well my child is doing in school,” she said. “How dare you insinuate that I am abusing my child? … After all, that is what this survey is all about: An agenda to make my child feel they are not worthy of having me as their parent.”

The letter from the five board members says, “the overwhelming concern” is that the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey questions “blatantly intrude into the privacy of our students and parents” (despite the fact that the survey is completed anonymously). 

The letter also says that a “majority of the school districts in the El Paso County region completely opted out of this survey previously.”

“The survey includes several sexually explicit questions that ask students as young as 11 years old to label their sexual identity (heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual etc.), as well as suggestive and invasive inquiries that explore the dynamics of the relationship between our parents and their kids,” it says.

The full letter can be viewed here.

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