Vanessa Beach’s 10-year-old daughter came home from school last Tuesday and presented her with a folded-up piece of paper that she said she wasn’t supposed to have brought home. It was a survey the fifth-grader had taken in class that day, and Beach couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw a litany of “ridiculous and unnerving” questions about the child’s sexual history, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
One particularly prying question asked, “Have you been in a romantic relationship? By relationship, we mean more than friends, like having a partner for planned events, like a school dance, going to the movies, or having a sexual partner.”
“I went ballistic,” Beach told Yahoo Lifestyle, noting that having a sexual partner at 10 would be tantamount to “sexual abuse.” She also took issue with queries to kids about their biological gender, the gender they identify as, and which sex they’re attracted to.
“I think about the kids that are struggling with their sexuality,” Beach said. “Are they going to have to lie? Are they going to have to put themselves in a box today?” She suggested that kids that young simply don’t have the confidence or self-awareness to take on such mature subject matter.
Beach said she took the opportunity to start a dialogue with her daughter about the questionnaire: “I asked, ‘How does this make you feel? Is there anything you want to ask me? Do you have questions?’”
But she admitted that she didn’t like having her hand forced. “It was not my choice,” she said. “I’m the parent; I get to choose. She [my daughter] gets to choose.”
How could a survey with such sensitive questions get past faculty members and onto kids’ desks? That’s what Beach is still trying to find out.
The survey was administered by WISE, a group that educates and advocates against gender-based violence. A notice was reportedly sent home asking parents if they would prefer that their child opt out of participating in the survey, but Beach says she never received it. Her silence was considered “passive consent,” and that is the state law regarding nonacademic surveys of school children, according to Jane Stapleton, co-director of the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, which partnered with WISE and the Institutional Review Board on the survey.
Beach told Yahoo Lifestyle that she saw the “permission” slip after the fact and that she would have said “yes” based on what she read: Kids would be taking a survey about domestic violence.
A few teachers were initially taken aback and reportedly said they wouldn’t want their own children answering the questions. Even the school’s guidance counselor apparently told Beach she had been uncomfortable with the questionnaires. Beach called the faculty members “lovely,” but said, “Someone dropped the ball.”
“If you have an inkling, if your mother’s intuition is popping up, I want you to do something if I send them there. When you put yourself in a leadership role, you have a responsibility to do what you think is right in that situation. Feel free to act up.”
But Stapleton defended the questionnaire to Yahoo Lifestyle, saying the collaboration is meant to help WISE evaluate school-based prevention programming. “What we know works in prevention is multiple-session programs that are age- and developmentally appropriate,” she said, emphasizing that the survey was painstakingly edited before being presented to students. “This was not a survey we threw together. It was at least eight months in development.”
When asked about the relevance of questions that determine which sex a child is attracted to or which gender they identify as, Stapleton said that “demographic questions” are crucial to gathering accurate data. “It is really important for us to understand how do these programs work with different genders. Ultimately we want our kids to be safe, we want them to be protected by their peers. I have kids, I understand,” she said.
Regarding the specific question Beach cited, Stapleton denied that children were being asked whether they’ve had sex. “It’s asking a range of behaviors,” she said. “It’s a general question that asks about romantic relationships. Yes, it does say sexual relationships, but it’s not asking about specific acts.” She added the questions “come from validated survey instruments that have been used nationally in middle schools.”
Beach says the superintendent of Windsor School contacted her, saying that he was “enraged” and that neither he nor the principal approved the survey.
Though the survey did not ask for the children’s names, it did allegedly request other identifying information, including initials and birthdays. According to both Beach and Stapleton, kids could also refuse to participate. But Beach points out that kids generally try to fit in and might be afraid to opt out if everyone else is taking it.
“They’re not going to stand up and say they’re uncomfortable,” she said. “I don’t care if you gave them an option. My kids was so uncomfortable that she folded it up and slid it into her back pocket and took it to me.”
But Stapleton claims some children did refuse to take it.
As for WISE’s stated mission, Beach said she believes it’s important to promote acceptance of LGBTQ children in the classroom and educate kids about domestic violence. She stated on her Facebook page that she is fully on board with anyone’s sexual orientation (“You do you”). But she doesn’t agree with children being asked questions they might not be ready to answer.
“Kids are growing up way too fast,” she said. “They don’t need help.”
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