Allendale school board’s vote on Youth Assessment Survey—a win for parental rights
Published June 23, 2023
Written by Athens
Photography by Simply American
Every two years, schools in Ottawa County administer the Youth Assessment Survey to current 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.
Parents are not privy to the survey questions. In most districts, it is assumed they give their student permission to participate unless they turn in a form to opt out.
Youth Assessment Survey: The Motion
On Monday, June 12, 2023, the Allendale Board of Education had as their final action item of the evening, a discussion and vote on whether to administer the Youth Assessment Survey (YAS) to the 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.
The YAS has been available to schools since 2005 and is locally developed for Ottawa County.
The committee responsible for this survey draws members from Arbor Circle, Ottawa County United Way, Lakeshore Regional Entity, Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, and Ottawa County Department of Public Health.
According to the Ottawa County Youth website, the YAS is an anonymous tool that:
• Gives parents information they may use to guide their teens in becoming physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy adults.
• Helps faith communities, local agencies, and schools focus their efforts on the most pressing and prevalent issues teens face.
• Helps evaluate the effectiveness of interventions developed to address pressing and prevalent teen issues.
Board Member Kim Cannata made the motion to participate in the YAS, in its entirety.
Silence followed as those in attendance waited for the motion to be seconded.
President Corey Mango, hearing no voice of support, asked if there was anyone who wanted to second the motion.
The silence continued. The YAS was an action item that would require in-depth discussion.
Public Comment: Parents Voiced Opinion On The YAS
Earlier in the meeting, those who gave public comment focused mainly on their recommendation for the board’s impending vote on the YAS.
One commenter spoke against implementing the survey, highlighting the following questions from the 2021 YAS:
• During the past 12 months have you sent or posted a naked or semi naked photo or video of yourself by text, email, social profile, website, blog,
• During the past 30 days, how many times have you seen or accessed internet pornography?
• How wrong does your parent or guardian feel it would be for you to have sexual intercourse?
• If you have ever had oral sex, how old were you the first time you had oral sex?
• During your life, with how many people have you had sexual intercourse?
• During the past 3 months, with how many people did you have sexual intercourse?
• Did you drink alcohol or use drugs before you had sexual intercourse the last time?
• During the past 12 months, did you make a plan about how you would attempt suicide?
• During the past 12 months, how many times did you attempt suicide?
“After reading some of the questions,” the commenter continued, “I just have concerns about the invasiveness of the questions and the lack of follow-up… I wouldn’t want that survey given to my child to answer without my permission.”
She added, “And about the opting out, oh I’ve always had issues with that because, quite honestly, I’m a single mom and a very busy parent. And I miss things… I am very concerned about this survey.”
Another commenter called the YAS questions graphic and invasive and said they have nothing to do with school. She asked, “What is done with the information once gathered? Since the students fill it out anonymously, there is no intention to offer them any support whatsoever when they mark they are having suicidal thoughts, or that there is abuse in the home.”
She went on to say, “It’s nothing more than government data mining. And to get that information, you’re risking potentially stirring up suicidal thoughts, normalizing sexual behaviors, and normalizing grooming with these promiscuous, inviting questions.”
The commenter concluded by asking the board, at the very least, to make the survey opt-in. She said busy parents miss emails and notes and don’t realize that their lack of attention is seen as support of something. Opt-in will ensure participation of only those students whose parents want them to take the survey.
The next commenter supported the survey. He said that while he agreed some of the questions are quite sensitive, he disagreed that they are not worthwhile. He added, “I would ask you uphold that promise of parental rights and you not deny your parents the right to choose opt-out. Choosing to take away all of the access to all the students is denying those parents that do want their students to take the survey.” He concluded with, “The value and the information [from the survey] is undeniable.”
The final commenter said, “The Youth Assessment Survey given every year provides important information regarding our APS students.” She added, “Not every student has a parent or guardian who is able to share this vital information, and therefore it falls on the community to fill in those gaps. Without the YAS survey, many students would go uninformed and end up in incredibly harmful and unsafe situations.”
Board Discussion: Sex Questions And Opt-In Vs Opt-Out
With the failure of the first YAS motion, Cannata put forward an amended motion to approve participation in the YAS, minus the section on reproductive health/sexual activity. Board Member Josh Thurkettle seconded the motion.
Mango opened the floor for discussion, which began with Superintendent Dr. Garth Cooper: “I just point out that we have given this survey in the past. Around the county there are four districts that are giving the survey in its entirety: Hudsonville, Grand Haven, Spring Lake, and Black River. The other five… are giving the survey minus the reproductive health portion of this.”
Cooper went on to say he thought the data has been used to help inform some of our sex ed curriculum, and that it’s used across the county and state with state and federal grant opportunities for speakers and counseling.
“I think there’s good data in here,” Cooper said. “I don’t think it’s data that necessarily changes story, like without the data, school experience will be completely different for kids. But I do think there’s value to this data, and I think that’s why every other district in the county is participating at some level.”
Cannata added, “I’ve gotten the opportunity to sit on SEAB [Sex Education Advisory Board] for maybe six years. As our teachers were creating a new curriculum, I know we did utilize as a group that data to say these are some important pieces that our kiddos are missing. And, how can we, you know, help them bulk up in this area?”
Cooper interjected to talk about what it would mean to remove the reproductive health section. “I do want to be transparent.” He explained that there still would be “questions related to sexual activity in the other sections. And again I will say, every other district in the county is doing those questions.”
He clarified, “I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh they’re taking out all the sex questions.’ No, it doesn’t mean that.”
Vice President Anna Hendricks said, “Some of these questions… there’s more that relate to sex [in other sections of the survey]… ”
Hendricks reflected on the questions about suicide and added, “Just having anybody really read this kind of stuff is sowing in seeds of thoughts… then you keep thinking that thought, and then that births a potential harmful behavior. I just don’t think that’s up to our district to do that… It’s just not in our jurisdiction.”
Thurkettle added his comments: “I think the idea that by us offering the survey we’re creating opportunities or avenues for students to make wrong or poor choices, I think is placing an undue burden of responsibility that is made up in our minds.”
He added, “Us giving them the survey to take is not going to promote those ideas or responses. It will be a tool that is created for the Sex Education Advisory Board to look back at responses… to attribute more conversation, more information.”
Board Member Liz Ramey said that she would want the parents to know exactly what the survey is. She would want to make sure they are provided a copy of the survey in its entirety, so they have all the information to decide if they would want their child to take it. If they do, they could send in the form to participate.
When Board Member Kevin Holstege asked if Cooper approves the survey every year, Cooper told him it’s only given every two years.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Cooper replied. “It’s the first time I ever asked the board about it… Since they started giving the YAS survey out, Allendale has always given the YAS survey. This year I wanted the board… because things seem a little different now than they used to be… I wanted the board to have a chance to weigh in.”
Mango said that as the motion sits—administering the survey minus the reproductive section—he would be voting against the survey. But, with an opt-in, he would support it. He turned to Cooper, “Before the students take the questionnaire, do the parents see the questions?”
Cooper said that he would have to check with the county to see if they could release those questions, because it’s not Allendale’s survey.
With the end of the discussion, Holstege moved to amend the motion to approve participation in the YAS, minus the section on reproductive health/sexual activity, and with the requirement of parental opt-in.
Those voting no—Thurkettle and Cannata.
Those voting yes—Hendricks, Holstege, Mango, and Ramey.
(Board Member Pam DeJong was absent.)
As a result of the vote, Allendale parents now have the right to give written permission for their student to opt in to take the Youth Assessment Survey (YAS). It remains unclear if parents will be allowed to see the questions before the survey is administered this fall.
As the YAS is rolled out in the next few months, it will be interesting to see which districts join Allendale in requiring an opt-in, as well as which districts provide parents the survey questions before administering the survey or asking their permission.
The previous YAS can be accessed at the Ottawa County Youth website.