Healthy Kids Colorado Survey sparks new attention, controversy
New questions for middle schoolers led several schools to opt out of the survey for the first time
For many years, the Healthy Kids Colorado survey has provided insights on the behaviors, attitudes and perceptions of the state’s middle and high school students. This year, the survey has been receiving more attention — and controversy — than ever over the content of some of its questions.
Michelle Stecher, the executive director of Mountain Youth, said that this year the survey has become “more of a hot topic than we’ve ever experienced before.”
Mountain Youth has served a unique role in the administration of the survey for the Eagle County community. Acting as a liaison between the schools and the state, the local nonprofit helps schedule the surveys, brings in volunteers to act as proctors for the survey and contracts an outside firm to locally assess the data gathered from students. Mountain Youth has acted in this role for the last seven surveys.
This survey is conducted bi-annually and asks students a number of questions about school life, school safety, relationships, mental and physical health, extracurricular involvement, alcohol and other substance abuse, sexual activity and more. There are different questions for middle schools and high schools.
This year’s survey started being administered this week and will be given in different classrooms and schools over the course of the next two weeks. Prior to the survey administration, parents received a letter about the survey that includes the questions that will be asked and a form to opt their student out, if desired. These letters went out a few weeks ago and sparked concerns around its content.
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Historically in Eagle County, every public and private middle and high school has participated in the survey. Even so, the survey has always been optional and parents are given the option to opt students out of taking the survey if they wish. According to Stecher, opting out was an uncommon practice until this year, with typically only 10 of nearly 4,000 students not participating.
This year, however, wider-spread concerns over content has led three schools to opt out of the survey entirely. These schools are St. Clare of Assisi Catholic School, Vail Christian Academy and Eagle County Charter Academy. Each of these schools is K-8 and opted out of the survey for its sixth, seventh and eighth grade students.
Eagle County Charter Academy Principal Kim Walter said that conversations among its middle school professionals and its parent community prompted the school to opt out. Particularly out of concern for its youngest students, she said.
“The questions related to sexual activity and consent have changed significantly from previous years,” Walter said. “It was this topic in particular that prompted our decision to postpone participation in the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey for grades six to eight until the state has the opportunity to review the feedback related to the newest changes to the survey.”
Walter said that in the past, participation in this survey has provided the charter school with “valuable information” that has informed which programming and support services students need, as well as gauge student behavior and risks. However, this year the questions prompted concerns about whether the school could address certain aspects of students’ responses to these new questions.
“We were concerned the limitations of an anonymous survey would not allow us to address questions and concerns that arise for students who are — or have in the past — experienced related trauma,” Walter said.
This year, a number of new questions were added to the middle school survey around sexual consent and activity. This includes questions about whether or not students’ have participated in sexual intercourse as well as whether consent was granted in such situations. Some of these questions include:
- During the past 12 months, has a revealing or sexual photo or video of you been texted, e-mailed, or posted electronically without your permission?
- Have you ever had a sexual experience where you were unsure if you received fully-granted consent from the other person?
- Have you ever touched, grabbed, or pinched someone in a sexual way when they did not want you to?
- Have you ever had sexual intercourse?
Denise Kipp, executive director of the Red Ribbon Project, said that consent is a “complex concept” that some students grasp better than others “based on maturity and experience.” However, she added that there is some value in asking these questions.
“Sadly, some students have experienced these things. Fortunately, others have not. The only way for the community to better understand the needs of young people is to collect this data,” Kipp said.
Currently, Eagle County School District partners with the Red Ribbon Project on its sex education, or maturation, classes for grades 5-12. Red Ribbon’s programs follow the Colorado Department of Education’s health standards and contain “comprehensive, medically accurate, fact-based education,” Kipp said.
Eagle County Charter Academy is part of the Eagle County School District. However, no other schools in the district have opted out. However, Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, wrote in an email that the district does expect to see an increase from previous surveys in individual families and students opting out. The district does not yet have data on the number of students that have opted out.
The reason the district expects this increase is, similar to Walter’s critique, about some of the questions geared to middle school students.
“We believe that the survey has evolved somewhat from years past and that certain questions around maturation and sexual education have been targeted to a younger demographic,” Miano wrote. “We have already reached out to the state and provided feedback in regards to this and hope that they will address these concerns for the next survey in 2023.”
However, the district did not feel these questions warranted a district-wide opt out.
“We did feel that some of the questions regarding sexuality for our sixth graders were concerning but did not think that it was worth opting out of the survey in its entirety as it does provide us valuable metrics on a myriad of subjects,” Miano wrote. “Parents have the option to opt out and we encourage students to not answer any questions that they do not understand, they are encouraged to skip those questions and move on to the next.”
A few surveys ago, sixth graders were added to the local survey to match the rest of the state, Stecher said, adding that this year’s concerns could prompt a visitation of this decision in the future.
While the questions around sexual behaviors for middle school students prompted the largest amount of concern, parents on Facebook and via other avenues also expressed concern around other topics such as substance use, gender and sexual identity and more. However, many of these questions have been on the survey for years.
“From last year to this year, the biggest change we’ve seen has been the middle school questions around sexual behaviors. Most of the other questions have been there in some shape or form each year,” Stecher said, later adding that “no research shows that by asking a question, you will encourage that behavior.”
Stecher added that the questions change each year to reflect new trends and stay on top of relevant conversations for today’s youth.
“In my conversations with the state, the reason for this increase in sexual questions has been because there was a lot more reports of sexual activity and sex without consent at younger ages,” she said. “And so, at the state level, they wanted to get a pulse on what this looks like really in communities and throughout the state to be able to provide more support.”
How the survey is written
Emily Fine, the school and youth survey manager for the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment, said that most of the questions on bi-annual survey come from the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey and are validated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorado has participated in the CDC survey since 1991. In 2013, this effort was expanded to create the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.
Questions from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey are further refined by a group that includes Colorado youth, parents, school administrators and nonprofit organizations.
“New questions are assessed for survey fit, including if they represent an emerging or important adolescent health topic, if there is shared interest among program and partners, and if the data will be actionable,” Fine said. “Final decisions on the standard survey are made by a steering committee, who rely heavily on this input.”
The steering committee includes representatives from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the Colorado Department of Human Services — Office of Behavioral Health, the Colorado Department of Education and a team of researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Local districts are able to add their own questions to this. Locally, Stecher said that it has only added a few questions around “trust and safety.”
On the state level, 23 new questions were added for high schools and 32 were added for middle schools. “The new questions include experiences related to the COVID-19 pandemic, violence and safety, stress and resilience, and connectedness,” Fine said.
According to Fine, Colorado has been surveying students for nearly 30 years. And during this time period, while it has received concerns and comments of discomfort from parents, the value of the survey has prevailed.
“Asking a young person questions on a health survey does not influence their behavior,” she said. “Many health-related behaviors — including sexual behaviors, tobacco use, and some forms of violence — have declined since 1991, at the same time that youth survey activities increased in Colorado and nationwide.”
The value of the survey
While the attention around the survey this year has not been entirely positive, Stecher said she’s glad that the survey, which has gone “under the radar for so long,” is at least being talked about. Part of the reason, she said, is the immense value it brings to the community.
The survey, Stecher said, helps many in Eagle County “get a better understanding of where our kids are at and a better understanding of their needs to provide better resources.”
Over the years, this data has been used to secure funding and launch critical youth services in the community, she said, adding that this has included Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and the addition of more counselors into schools.
Statewide, Fine said that the results have informed the creation of new programming to support student success, provide direction to schools and communities to address health issues, inform parents on relevant topics to discuss with their students and secure program funding for a number of groups and organizations.
For the school district, the results help it achieve its goal and priority of supporting the health and well-being of its students.
“Data from HKCS can be used in helping us to understand where our student population currently is in achieving that priority,” Miano wrote.
Stecher suggested that one possible reason that parents have expressed growing discontentment of the survey is that some parents probably want the first time their student hears these topics to come from them and not an anonymous service. Which, she feels is a positive outcome of the attention the survey has gotten this year.
“If nothing else, all of this controversy, hopefully has encouraged more parents to start the conversation about these intimidating topics, ” she said. “That would be a great outcome of this situation.”