Education

Parents object to Wake school survey that rates students on their emotional health

Updated on Nov. 4 and Nov. 8.

Some Wake County parents are refusing to give permission for teachers to conduct surveys that rate and track the behavioral health of their students.

The Wake County school system will have teachers at around 40 schools rate their students on 34 questions, such as how often they’ve appeared angry, expressed thoughts of hurting themselves, expressed strange or bizarre thoughts, appeared depressed or engaged in risk-taking behavior.

School officials say the Behavior Intervention Monitoring Assessment System, or BIMAS-2, will help them identify students who are at risk of future academic, behavior or emotional difficulties.

“This will help us to figure out how to support the academic and behavioral needs of our students,” Paul Koh, Wake’s assistant superintendent for student support, said in an interview.

Eight schools are starting the survey first this school year, according to Tim Simmons, a school district spokesman. He identified them as East Wake, Green Hope and Sanderson high schools; Holly Ridge Middle School; Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Bugg, Olive Chapel and Washington elementary schools.

Holly Ridge was scheduled to conduct its survey on Nov. 1, so parents had until Oct. 30 to opt their children out. Letters were sent home with students to give to their parents about the survey.

A.P. Dillon, a conservative blogger and parent at Holly Ridge Middle, complained on her blog and on Twitter that the survey is an invasion of students’ privacy. She said Wake should have required parents to opt-in, instead of opting-out of the survey.

“These are minor children, and the district has no business evaluating them medically or psychologically without the express written permission of their parents or legal guardians,” Dillon said in an interview.

The survey is part of Wake’s social emotional learning, or SEL, curriculum. Schools are trying to help students manage their emotions so they can build positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

“Nurturing a student’s social emotional health really supports and improves academic pursuits for students and outcomes,” Edward McFarland, Wake’s chief academic advancement officer, told school board members on Monday. “We also know that strengthening a student’s self-esteem, their resilience, their ability to confront and deal with stress, their overall emotional well-being is not extra. That is in fact core instruction for all students.”

Benefits of social emotional learning

School administrators promoted the benefits of social emotional learning at a school board committee meeting on Oct. 28. An example of such learning is a program in which students regularly meet in groups (called circles) to talk with their classmates and teachers about their feelings, hopes, dreams and concerns.

Some parents have demanded the district discontinue the use of Circle Time, saying students are at risk of having their privacy rights be violated. They’ve called it “group therapy” and say that it takes away time from academics.

But school officials said on Oct. 28 that there’s been a 72% drop in student suspensions in schools that use restorative practices such as circles. In addition to the drop in suspensions, Kathryn Hutchinson, principal of Centennial Campus Middle School in Raleigh, said attendance is up on the days when circles are held because students find it to be a safe space where their concerns are heard.

“When we had the weather, they would complain they missed circle day,” Hutchinson said. “When things started happening in this world and they came in worried and concerned, they wanted a safe space.”

School board members voiced their support for the circles on Oct. 28, saying they wished the program was used in more schools. School board chairman Jim Martin said it feels to him that critics don’t want their children to be taught empathy because it will be “harder (for them) to maintain a position of entitlement.”

“These are not therapy circles,” Martin said. “These are learn to listen, learn to engage, learn to address conflict. These are all those critical skills that our children need.

“It’s going to reduce bullying. It’s going to increase safety. It’s going to make better workers.”

Other examples of social emotional learning include training teachers how to deescalate situations and using mediation to resolve disputes instead of suspensions or referrals to the court system.

Supporting needs of students

Simmons said the surveys are part of the district’s work to create a “balanced assessment framework” that supports students’ academic, social-emotional and behavioral needs.

The survey was piloted last school year in nine Wake schools.

Not all 40 schools have been picked yet, according to Simmons. He said the opt-out dates will be determined by the dates the schools choose for teachers to conduct their observation surveys.

School officials say the survey will be conducted at least twice a year. Teachers will rate how often they’ve seen students engage in the behaviors cited in the survey.

Koh said they wanted to get the survey in front of as many students as possible to provide the right support for them. He said the survey will allow the district to “get an accurate temperature of a school.”

“This is a standardized tool so we that can accurately find out what our student needs are so we’re not just guessing on a feeling,” Koh said.

But Dillon said the survey calls on teachers to rate students on subjective criteria that can be viewed as psychological in nature. Simmons said it’s a tool for screening behavioral health and is not a mental health assessment.

Some parents complained about how Wake has handled the notification process. They said they never received an opt-out letter.

“Unbelievable,” Brian Onorio, a Raleigh parent, tweeted Friday. “Are we to assume anything less than a sinister nature? With such opaqueness, we’re left to our own assumptions, driven by their own choices, as to what this is about. As taxpayers and parents, we have an unfettered right to review what is being done.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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