It’s a teacher’s dream. How often do you get to point to something happening in your own classroom – about which you recently lectured – and say, “This! This is what we talked about! Remember the Fifth Amendment?" Man, that feels good.
I know. I’m a mom. I’m one of my kids’ first teachers and know that nothing beats experiential learning. An opportunity to apply theoretical principles to real-world situations doesn’t materialize every day, but April 18, the Batavia School District unwittingly handed veteran Batavia High School social studies teacher John Dryden such an opportunity on a silver platter.
Good teacher that he is, he used it. And now the school board is throwing him under the school bus. The only thing that’s clear, in my humble, weary-of-all-of this and geez, can’t-we-pulleeze-just-get-this-summer-started-already opinion is that there’s room for improvement. For everyone. No exceptions. That means me, too. Because I, a parent of a Batavia High School freshman, also dropped the ball.
Dryden reportedly reminded his students that they had a Constitutional right not to incriminate themselves when completing a 34-question, in-class survey pertaining to social and emotional issues, which included questions about drug and alcohol use.
He was docked a day’s pay. I suspected there might be a back story. Last week, the Batavia School Board voted to issue a written warning of improper conduct and authorized a notice of remediation against Dryden. Board member Jon Gaspar, who cast the sole no vote, gets my vote, the next time he runs. Because if I examine information this board cites as evidence about this particular incident, I see insubstantial grounds for such a reaction.
Instead, I see a teacher who did right by his students when he discovered that very specific, personal questions were being asked – when the answer sheets bore their names.
Some parents, myself included, were informed in a vaguely-worded email that our children would be taking a "survey" that “evaluates their social-emotional perceptions.” Not all BPS parents are enrolled in this email communication system. Some who are didn’t seem to receive it. Moreover, nowhere in this email about a survey – which, by definition, is a “gathering of a sample of data or opinions considered to be representative of a whole” – is any mention made of the very specific, personal nature of the questions to be asked. Had there been, I would immediately have opted out, using the embedded link. I intended to learn more. I was busy recovering from an accident, but no matter, I’ve learned my lesson. I will immediately examine and act on every BPS-101 communication I receive. I won’t make this mistake again. I dropped the ball.
John Dryden didn’t. He knew a survey was coming. But when he saw the named surveys – which Noah says included questions like, Did you use drugs this week? Did you drink alcohol this week? and Did you feel sad this week? – and recognized the potential implications of answering them, he reminded students about their studies regarding Fifth Amendment rights. Why would such a sensitive assessment ever be considered appropriate, let alone viable, outside a relationship with a trusted clinician? And be conducted without written parental consent?
The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment applies to programs that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education. It intends to protect the rights of parents and students by seeking to ensure that schools “obtain written parental consent before minor students are required to participate in any ED-funded survey … that reveals information concerning … mental and psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student and his/her family; sex behavior and attitudes; [and] illegal … self-incriminating … behavior,” etc.
I never gave written consent. I called the United States Department of Education. A press office spokesman asked whether the survey was funded in whole or in part by U.S. Department of Education funds. Where did the reported $8,000 it cost to implement it come from?
In this case, federal funds were not used, school officials said.
Whether BPS intended to use the sensitive information gathered for anything but the project of identifying students who might need emotional support – a worthy intention given recent student suicides here – isn’t the point. We’d be naive to ignore the reality that sensitive information sometimes turns up later, regardless of original intentions to keep it confidential. Dryden obviously isn’t naïve. But he realized that some of his students might be and said what needed to be said. I applaud him for that.
Some of Dryden’s past comments, documented by the district and reportedly upsetting to students, concern me greatly – and earned school board warnings. If such concerns remain, they should be addressed, but that’s not the issue, now. Should someone have stood up for our kids April 18? Yes. Should "surveys" like this be done without written parental consent? No. Just because it’s presently legal, in certain circumstances, doesn’t make it right. And just because you fear that someone else’s courage to step up and care for our children makes it appear that you somehow care less, dear BPS folks, doesn’t make that person’s action warning-worthy – let alone wrong, no matter who he is. Mistakes were made here, but not by John Dryden. Not this time.
This has been a teachable moment, not just for Dryden’s kids, Batavia, but for each and every one of us. Because to really help our children, we’ve gotta have their trust. They’re watching how we handle this thing. My sense is that everyone involved has good intentions. But good intentions aren’t enough. Nor is Barshinger’s recent suggestion that steps will be taken to “ … increase parental awareness and transparency when gathering data about sensitive issues such as mental health or substance abuse issues.” A reversal of the school board’s decision, however, would help rebuild that trust, and allow us all to refocus our precious energy and resources on that thing that I believe you really wanted to do in the first place, BPS-101 – help us help our kids.
We can do this.
• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.