This letter is in response to several concerns and questions from parents about their child’s participation in last month’s Oklahoma Preventive Needs Assessment (OPNA). The OPNA is a biennial survey of public, private, and charter school students in grades 6,8, 10, and 12 across the state. This survey is a project of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS), and has been conducted since 2004.
As stated on the OPNA webpage, the focus of this survey is on health risk behaviors such as violence and alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use that can result in injury and/or impede positive development among our youth. The survey also includes risk and protective factors, which are attitudes, behaviors, and opinions that research has shown to be highly correlated with these health risk behaviors. The link above provides detailed information about the basis for the survey, to include samples of this year's surveys for each grade level and an FAQ section.
In particular, we have heard concerns from families about questions related to gender identity on this year’s survey for students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade. The questions of concern were not on the 6th grade survey. Additionally, I know some parents were also frustrated with the level of communication from the district about the nature and scope of the survey along with their rights for opting their child(ren) out from participation.
After seeing a few of the questions that student’s shared with parents, I understand why you may have been confused, upset, or felt blindsided by the survey. Prior to this year’s administration, we were unaware of the inclusion of questions about students’ sexual or gender identity. These questions were also not included in the sample survey provided on the OPNA site. My understanding at this point is that these were added as supplemental questions. I am seeking clarification from the Department of Mental Health as to how and why these questions were added to this year’s instrument.
It's true that the district agreed to participate in this year's survey. We have participated in previous years and had not experienced any issues. As part of this year’s process, students in the selected grades were provided a letter to inform parents of the survey and explain their right to opt their child out. Typically, in keeping with the OPNA’s preferences, this has been a passive process, meaning that students would be given the survey unless a parent informed the school that their child should not participate. Students should also have been instructed by their teachers who administered the survey that they could choose not to answer any question they didn’t understand or felt uncomfortable responding to. Given the concerns about this year’s survey, in future years the district will strongly consider moving to an active consent process where only students with a signed consent form would participate. Again, we have communicated these concerns with state officials and hope to receive clarification soon.
I believe the OPNA does provide meaningful data relative to student trends related to social and emotional well-being. At the same time, I also respect the rights of parents to choose when and how some of these sensitive topics are addressed with their children. And, while the survey is anonymous and administered online, I understand parent questions about student confidentiality and how this information is potentially used or shared by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health. I am confident that your child’s identity is protected and that no individual information about students is being collected. However, I have also forwarded these concerns and will share the answers I receive in a future update.
I want you to know that I greatly value your trust and confidence. I regret the frustration and discomfort some of you or your children have experienced because of this survey. As I have said throughout the pandemic, I believe you deserve honest and transparent communication about all topics involving your children, especially when it comes to potentially sensitive topics. We may not always see eye-to-eye on every topic, yet it’s important we understand each other’s perspectives. I encourage you to contact me or a member of my district team directly if you have additional questions or concerns about this survey, or any other issue for which you seek more understanding or have specific questions.
I hope you enjoyed a pleasant long weekend.