Summit County officials decry state board pulling support from ‘key’ student health survey
The state school board recently withdrew its support from a survey that asks students about risky behavior and mental health. Some local officials call the data critical, while at least one state representative worries the survey teaches kids to use drugs.
Every two years, Utah students in multiple grades take a survey from the state Department of Health. The survey includes questions about how often students vape, if they drink and whether they’ve thought about suicide.
Local health officials use the data to craft intervention programs and determine what initiatives need particular attention.
The Summit County Health Director, a Summit County councilor and Park City’s representative on the state school board are now calling on local districts to continue participating in the survey after state school officials recently pulled their support.
Earlier this month, the Utah State Board of Education officially withdrew its support from the Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) Survey. Board Member Natalie Cline, whose district includes South Jordan, said she worried the survey is educating kids about drugs: how to use them, what drugs are available and where to find them.
“Putting myself in the shoes of a teenager: Reading through these dark survey questions makes me anxious, depressed, suicidal and causes me to think about things I never would have thought about," Cline said at the board meeting June 2. "It teaches me how to use drugs, and to think about using drugs often. It makes me think that suicide is a legitimate option for dealing with discomfort and the challenges in my life. It causes me to see my parents as the source of my problems.”
Cline, one of 15 board members, also objected that the survey did not ask about pornography, which she said was the “stimulant of choice” for kids and readily available in school libraries.
“They mentioned that they don't have any data showing that it has negative effects," Cline said of the SHARP Survey. "Well, anybody that reads the questions like I did knows it has a negative effect, from personal experience."
Other board members also said the survey needs to be improved, is too long and could encourage bad behavior.
Cline moved to cancel the survey altogether. Staffers said the board could not cancel it because the survey is administered with the Utah Department of Health, but the board could withdraw its support.
Board Member Carol Lear, who represents the Park City School District, was one of three who opposed the motion.
“We need the information," Lear said. "I mean, I've been a teacher. I'm a lawyer now, I'm a teacher at heart. But you can't … you really have to know the culture of the students and families you're dealing with in order for you to tailor your instruction and in order to set your priorities. And you can't just pretend you're teaching math and science and language arts in a cultural vacuum.”
After a measure narrowly failed that would have retained support for the survey while the board continued to study it, the board voted to withdraw its support.
The move does not end the survey. Local districts may still participate, though Lear said smaller districts that often take their cue from the state board may opt not to.
Summit County Health Director Phil Bondurant said the North Summit and South Summit districts have taken steps to continue participating in the survey. He said he didn’t know the plans in the Park City School District but was having conversations with the district.
Park City Superintendent Jill Gildea said parents will be able to choose whether their student participates in the survey if it is once again administered statewide.
Bondurant said he hopes Park City participates.
“I am a big advocate of the SHARP Survey and the information that it provides," Bondurant said. "I think it's a valuable tool for us. It helps us understand what our youth are dealing with across the different grade levels. But it also provides our prevention team … with key information that they can focus on those groups within our county that are at highest risk.”
Summit County Councilor Roger Armstrong also encouraged local school districts to continue the survey. He said it’s an opportunity to check in with kids and to see how the county’s public health programs are doing.
Armstrong took issue with the state board pulling its support, and the idea that the survey causes more harm than good. He read some of Cline’s comments during a council meeting.
“That kind of thinking gets us away from the kind of communication that we need to be having with kids," Armstrong said. "We need to have more honest discussions about what they're feeling, what they're thinking. And if we don't ask, it's difficult to get them to report.”
Armstrong called it unfortunate thinking by what he said was perhaps the most influential board in the state when it comes to students’ mental and physical health.