Most teens and tweens who use drugs, alcohol and tobacco hide it from teachers and parents.
But when promised anonymity, more than a million Kansas school kids have been frank over the past two decades answering the annual Kansas Communities That Care survey. Which substances do they misuse, how often and what are their perceptions about the risks?
Mental health officials say the data have been invaluable in crafting prevention strategies to combat substance abuse.
But now that string of statistics has been broken.
Administrators of state and local substance abuse prevention efforts were stunned and baffled to learn that new state privacy protections now limit their ability to collect that data.
The result has been a dramatic decline in the number of Kansas students taking the survey.
“Everybody was like, ‘Holy criminy, how did this get passed?’” said Michelle Voth, executive director of the Kansas Family Partnership in Topeka.
Call it a matter of unintended consequences. Even some of the bill’s biggest supporters were unaware that it would have a negative impact on the Kansas Communities That Care survey.
But it has, to the point that, for the first time since the mid-1990s, none of the six Johnson County school districts participated this school year.
School districts across the state also worry the law will have unforeseen negative effects that go beyond the survey. What those might be, they’re not sure at this point.
But the Kansas Association of School Boards is urging its members to keep a list in hopes of changing the law, which the group had supported.
“We need to really look at what the ramifications are,” said Mark Tallman, the group’s associate executive director for advocacy.
Data breach concerns
While roughly 100,000 Kansas school kids filled out the substance abuse survey in previous years, this school year it could be as low as 25,000, Voth said.
That’s because of new restrictions on what kind of questions kids can be asked by survey takers without prior parental permission. Previously, parents could opt out of having their sons and daughters take the survey, but few did in participating school districts.
Last school year, 70 percent of all Kansas students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 took the survey. Figures for this year are not yet available on the Kansas Communities That Care website, but they are sure to be far lower.
And all because of a single clause added to a data privacy bill late in the legislative process. It was a bill that, before it was amended, had wide support because it seemed to address the concerns of multiple constituencies.
The original aim of Senate Bill 367 was to address the privacy concerns of those who oppose or question the nationwide establishment of a set of education standards for the teaching of math and English.
While those Common Core guidelines have the support of many parents and educators, others worry that the system will lead to the widespread sharing of confidential data about individual students.
Equally worrisome to some is the potential for data breaches like those at Target, Home Depot and Sony Pictures.
To allay those fears, Rep. Melissa Rooker and other Common Core supporters backed SB 367, which sets out limits on what kind of data school districts can collect and share.
As the bill headed toward final passage, amendments were added. One loosened restrictions on data that could be provided to class ring-makers, for instance.
The ramifications of other additions were not so clear cut.
“We knew, in the name of protecting student privacy, there would be unintended consequences,” said Rooker, a Fairway Republican.
The amendment in question requires parental permission before students can answer any survey or questionnaire with questions pertaining to “issues such as sex, family life, morality or religion, or any questions about the student’s parents’ or guardians’ beliefs” on those issues.
Since the substance abuse survey touches on family life issues, a number of school district attorneys decided that the law applied. And as there wasn’t much time before pre-enrollment packets containing parental permission slips went out last summer, some districts decided to sit out the substance abuse survey this year.
What’s confounding the agencies that use the data is that none of the 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.
One benefit of the survey, Burgess said, has been to help authorities target their efforts. For example, when the data showed that kids were beginning to experiment with alcohol at about age 13, the focus moved from high school to middle school.
Likewise, the data have shown that, as with many adults, kids’ attitudes toward marijuana have grown more liberal. Half of high school seniors in Johnson County last year said they saw no risk in smoking pot, up from 36 percent in 2007.
“As the perception of harm decreases,” Burgess said, “use goes up.”
As one of its legislative priorities this year, Johnson County government is asking the Legislature to change the law, which makes no exceptions for anonymous surveys.
A Republican from Lansing, Rep. John Bradford, was one of those who testified in favor of adding the language that tripped up the survey. In an interview, he couldn’t remember that particular section being added but said he welcomes testimony on needed tweaks.
“I’m on the education committee again this year,” he said, “and I’ll be looking forward to it.”
But a fix is far from guaranteed. While Rooker would welcome a change, she says that might be difficult politically.
One reason is that, intended or not, this particular consequence does not trouble everyone.
Even anonymous data could be traced back to individual students in the case of small, rural school districts, says former state school board member Walt Chappell.
The state contractor that administers the survey says that’s simply not true. Privacy protections are built in to keep that from happening, according to Lisa Chaney, director of research at the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center in Girard, Kan.
But Chappell, who argued in favor of the “family life” data restrictions, is skeptical. For him to support relaxing them, he says he’d need convincing that the self-reported data on student substance abuse was valuable enough to risk the privacy of Kansas students and their parents.
“Does it help to reduce drug use?” he asked. “Does it really make a difference?”
Chappell is skeptical, while Burgess, Voth and other advocates are putting together the data to make that case.
Meanwhile, they and others say that, without a change in the law, the data collected under an opt-in parental permission system will be less valuable.
It will not only lead to fewer participants, said Randy Callstrom, president and CEO of Wyandot Inc., a public mental health agency in Kansas City, Kan. That lower percentage also will skew the results.
“Honest reporting requires freedom for all students to participate,” he said.