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CMS Survey Asks Students In Grades 6-12 To Report Sexual Orientation

Correction: An earlier version of this story said fifth-graders got the questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, but a CMS official says fifth-graders only took the school climate survey without those questions.

Some Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents and teachers say they're concerned about a mandatory survey being given in class that asks students in grades 6-12 to list their sexual orientation and gender identity.

It's part of a school climate survey being administered by the district's Title IX department. That's a reference to a law forbidding federally-funded schools from discriminating by sex. 

CMS Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes said Friday that the district has given the survey for three or four years, but this is the first time the questions about sexual orientation and gender identity were added. He said fifth-graders also take the climate survey but did not get the additional questions.

"We wanted to be able to direct precious resources to make sure that students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer (or) transgender can feel safe and supported in their schools," Barnes said.

Two parents told WFAE they understand the value of asking about bullying and safety, but said they have concerns about privacy, age-appropriateness and the lack of any communication with families. Others, including teachers, made similar comments on a private Facebook page for CMS advocacy.

Screen shot of questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

"My concern is about the fact that they’re asking very personal and private information from children who may or may not understand the terminologies that they’re using yet," said Shamaiye Haynes, the mother of fourth- and 11th-graders in CMS.

Neither parents nor the teachers administering the survey were told what to expect, according to interviews and online comments. One middle school teacher says he realized something was different about a school climate survey when a student asked him what “asexual” means.

It's one of seven options on a multiple-choice question asking students to describe their sexual orientation, along with straight/heterosexual, gay or lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, questioning my sexual orientation or “other.”

Students are also asked to indicate gender identity. The options there are male, female, non-binary and gender fluid. There’s another question about whether students identify as transgender.

Invasion Of Privacy?

Jason Carey says he learned about the questions from his daughter, an eighth-grader at Waddell Language Academy. He asked her to call the survey up on PowerSchool, the online tool used to give families access to CMS information.

"I think the survey is actually a good survey," Carey said Friday. "It asks about bullying school experience, do you have somebody you can report things to."

But he says he's concerned that students may not fully understand the questions, "and it’s not, as far as I can tell, an anonymous survey because they log in through their ID."

"Parents were not given a heads-up about this survey so we couldn’t discuss it with our kids, and the teachers said, 'You have to take this survey. Please finish it.' There was no way to opt out," he said.

Haynes agreed, and added that "I think parents should be able to advise their children whether or not they want them to complete the survey at all."

On the private Facebook page, someone who identified himself as a gay teacher said the questions are an inappropriate invasion of students' privacy. "There continues to be masked and blatant discrimination against gay and transgender teachers and students within CMS and of course in our society as a whole," the comment says.

Another commenter says the questions sparked inappropriate jokes among middle school students.

Schools To Blame?

Barnes blamed some of the communication problems on individual schools. He says CMS provided material in early February that schools could use to let parents know about the survey, but he doesn't know how many used it.

Credit CMS
Frank Barnes

But when WFAE asked for copies of that material, which included suggestions for automated messages and social media posts, the new questions are not mentioned in any of it.  A letter from Superintendent Earnest Winston introducing this year's survey to teachers and staff also said nothing about adding questions on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Barnes also said a screen shot of an introduction to the survey, which an educator provided to WFAE, appears to have been modified by the school to say that the survey was mandatory for all students in grades 5-12. He says schools were told they had to administer the survey between Feb. 10-25, but that students could decline to participate or to answer specific questions.

But Barnes said CMS should have been quicker to respond to questions. WFAE first sent a query about the survey before 7 a.m. Thursday, but got nothing from the district all day. On Thursday afternoon CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew, a CMS parent, said she hadn't heard about it but would try to find out more.

Friday afternoon, after a version of this story was posted and board members had asked questions, board members got an email explaining the addition of the sexual orientation and gender identity questions, member Rhonda Cheek said.

Barnes provided an explanation to WFAE and the public information office sent a requested copy of the full survey Friday afternoon.

Going Back To Drawing Board

Barnes also says CMS will learn and improve based on the concerns raised by families.

"I think first we need to go back to the drawing board with these three questions and ask ourselves what’s the best way to get this information," he said. "The second thing we need to look at is, is this the best language to use that it’s student-friendly. And third we need to really re-look at what are the grade spans, or age appropriateness."

Barnes says none of the new data will be presented in any way that could identify students. In past surveys, he said, schools have gotten reports on their students' results broken down by race and gender. But it's not clear that that would be appropriate for the new categories, Barnes said, especially if the numbers are small.

"We're still looking at what might be the most appropriate reporting," he said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.