Privacy law reduces student participation in drug survey

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — An amendment to a new privacy law has sharply reduced the number of students participating in an annual survey that measures substance abuse, potentially hurting efforts to fight drug and alcohol use among young Kansas residents, according to mental health officials.

For nearly two decades, about 100,000 students have filled out the Kansas Communities That Care survey each year. But that number could drop to 25,000 this year because of an amendment to a data privacy bill the Legislature passed last year, which requires parental permission before students can answer any surveys with questions about issues such as sex, religion or family life, The Kansas City Star reported.

Several school district attorneys decided that the law applied to the survey because it contains questions about family life. And since time was limited before pre-enrollment packets containing parental permission slips went out last summer, many districts decided not to participate in the survey this year.

“Everybody was like, ‘Holy criminy, how did this get passed?'” said Michelle Voth, executive director of the Kansas Family Partnership in Topeka.

The original goal of the bill was to address the privacy concerns of those who oppose the national Common Core education guidelines for math and English, partly because of concern it will lead to the widespread sharing of confidential data about individual students.

Mental health agencies point out that none of the survey answers can be traced back to individual students.

“This questionnaire is anonymous, it’s voluntary and the data’s confidential,” said Shana Burgess, manager of prevention services at the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

The data has helped agencies target their efforts, such as moving the focus to middle school when the data showed that students were beginning to experiment with alcohol about age 13, Burgess said.

For the first time since mid-1990s, none of the six Johnson County school districts participated this year. The county’s government said one of its priorities this year will be asking the Legislature to change the law, which makes no exceptions for anonymous surveys.

But even anonymous data could be traced back to individual students in the case of small, rural school districts, former state school board member Walt Chappell said, adding that he’d need to be convinced that the data was valuable enough to risk the invasion of privacy.

“Does it help to reduce drug use?” he asked. “Does it really make a difference?”

The survey has privacy protections that guarantee that the data won’t be shared, according to Lisa Chaney, director of research at the Girard-based Southeast Kansas Education Service Center, the state contractor that administers the survey.

 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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