When a school survey gets personal, the superintendent steps in

Published January 9
Updated January 10

TRINITY — Students returning to classes at Pasco County’s Mitchell High School on Tuesday were greeted with a survey asking them, among other things, whether they were more attracted to others of the same gender, the opposite gender, both or neither.

The "Matchomatics" questionnaire was part of a fund raiser, the collected information to help teens find their best match among their nearly 2,000 schoolmates heading toward Valentine’s Day. Kids could buy their results.

In one Facebook chat group, some current and former Mitchell students said the "fun" and optional survey had been taking place "forever," and they didn’t see anything wrong with it. It didn’t seem intrusive, they said, and it certainly wasn’t personal.

But it made some parents irate.

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"They can’t ask questions like that," said Deb Herbage, an activist mom who doesn’t have kids at Mitchell but often speaks out for groups who fear reprisals. "If they do, they have to most definitely get parental permission."

In addition to the question about sexual orientation, the survey asked students to identify their hair color, the hair color they prefer in others, their height and the age of people they like to hang out with.

Herbage pointed to the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, sharing it with other concerned parents in a separate Facebook chat group. It states that when education agencies receiving federal funds conduct surveys concerning eight protected areas, including political affiliations and "sex behavior or attitudes," they must follow strict guidelines — including getting advance parental consent to ask such questions.

That didn’t appear to occur at Mitchell, much to the dismay of at least one parent.

"I learned today that (our daughter) was prompted to participate in a survey which asked deeply personal and, in our opinion, inappropriate questions," parent Jim Stanley wrote to principal Jessica Schultz in an email asking about the fundraiser.

Among his own questions: If this survey wasn’t approved, what will the school do about it?

Superintendent Kurt Browning had an answer for that one.

He killed the survey before the school day ended, and ordered all the paper responses shredded before they could be turned into electronic data.

"It’s inappropriate and should not be done," Browning said of the survey, which he learned of at lunch time Tuesday.

If schools want to raise money to support extra activities, he added, "You know what? Go sell candy bars."

Schultz told Stanley in her response that the fundraiser had been done for many years, as a way for students to build community and make new friends. Because of the community concerns, though, she said she would not continue the fundraiser.

Some suggested the destroying of the responses was a good first step. But they still wanted more, such as letting kids know they don’t have to participate.

Stanley, for one, wasn’t satisfied. He said his questions were not answered, and "I will not accept this as the end of the issue."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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