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Our View: Lessons learned: The Batavia High School survey

Published: Saturday, June 1, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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That Batavia High School officials say they were seeking to identify and help at-risk students when they developed an in-class survey that was distributed in April is laudable. The method they used, however, could have been better.

Unless parents opted out their children in advance, students at Batavia High School were asked to complete a survey – which was created with their names already printed on them – in which personal questions were posed, such as whether they engaged in drinking or drug use. Since then, John Dryden, a social studies teacher at the school, has been reprimanded for warning students that they had a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves before taking the questionnaire. His actions have resulted in a day of docked pay.

While district documents show that Dryden has been disciplined in the past for comments he has made to students, this matter is of a different nature. Dryden was educating students about their rights. Underage drinking is a crime, as is engaging in the use of illegal drugs – topics the survey broached. Students – indeed, everyone – should be careful when providing such personal information about themselves, especially when they are so clearly identified. Did these surveys need to have student names printed on them? Many in the community are asking that question.

Although School District 101 Superintendent Jack Barshinger has said the students wouldn’t face criminal consequences as a result of their survey answers, it’s understandable that some students – and their parents – still would be uncomfortable with honest answers about illegal activity being written on the questionnaires. Talking to students one-on-one would likely be more effective and – in a literal and figurative sense – less black and white.

Also in question is the timing of the survey, given in April. What meaningful help could the district provide to at-risk students in the time remaining during the school year?

Perhaps the manner in which Dryden delivered the warning to students wasn’t ideal, but it’s difficult to believe that his actions in this case rise to the level of a behavior problem. It’s the job of a social studies teacher to teach students about their rights. 

In the notice to remedy that was issued to Dryden, officials state that “it is unknown how many students who may be in need of emotional or social interventions will go without available assistance or interventions” because they followed Dryden’s directions. But more ways to help students do exist.

Districts employ counselors. And certainly teachers, officials and classmates could observe behavior that raises concerns.

We want local school districts to try and help students in need. But we are not alone in questioning whether District 101 made the most effective choice in tackling that objective through its survey.

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