Abbotsford’s participation in a B.C.-wide adolescent health survey could be hindered as the school district shifts its policy on parental consent for student participation.
For the McCreary Centre Society’s 2018 Adolescent Health Survey, the Abbotsford School District only required passive consent for students to participate. That means a consent form not returned to the school would allow the student to participate, if the student consented.
But in a letter to the Fraser Health Authority presented at a recent school board meeting, the district indicated that the policy would shift toward active consent for middle school students. That means consent forms not returned to the school would bar the student from participating in the survey.
District superintendent Kevin Godden told the school board that about two-thirds of middle school principals expressed concerns that a change of policy could affect outcomes in the survey.
Changing the consent policy could hinder results, which could, in turn, affect the survey’s accuracy. In the 2013 survey, the districts with active consent and passive consent saw, respectively, 53 and 82 per cent participation rates, according to McCreary Centre executive director Annie Smith.
For the two school districts that had split policies – active consent for Grade 7 students and passive consent for older students – participation was at 75 per cent.
“We encourage school districts to opt for parental notification and student consent, as it … provides the most accurate and comprehensive picture of student’s health, but also fully respect that it is the school district’s decision and they must make the decision that they feel is best for them,” Smith said.
The change in policy comes after a group of parents expressed concerns about the survey questions on suicide and sexual activity.
A petition to the school district, created by Lisa Brandsma and signed by 643 people, claims the survey asks questions like “When was the last time you seriously considered killing yourself?” and “What type of pregnancy prevention do you use when you have sex?”
The school board debated extending the active consent policy to secondary school students as well, but held off due to lacking data on participation rates at the meeting. Some trustees also questioned the validity of the survey.
“I actually have deep concerns about the way the questions are asked and formulated, which direct the students to a certain type of answer,” trustee Korky Neufeld said.
He suggested the McCreary Centre was directing students to answer in a certain way to “justify [the McCreary Centre’s] existence or give credence to their existence,” and called for an independent review of the McCreary survey.
Smith said she could not share the actual survey questions, but offered a pamphlet on the rationale and source of the questions.
According to the pamphlet, the questions come from similar youth health surveys from the University of Minnesota, the World Health Organization, Statistics Canada and Human Resources Canada, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, among several others.
“We use questions that have been extensively piloted and validated with this age group, which ensures leading questions are not included. We also ensure a full range of answers are available for each question to reduce any likelihood of leading students in a certain direction,” Smith said, adding that having nurses administer the survey can help with accuracy.
“This is key because we know that students may under report health risk behaviours such as substance use if they believe their teacher or parent will be able to see their answers.”
The 2018 Adolescent Health Survey results are expected to be made available in March 2019.