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Board Members: CMS Failed Families And Schools With Botched Survey Questions


Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members said Monday that the district's central offices made a series of mistakes in rolling out survey questions asking students about their sexual orientation and gender identity.

The mistakes started when someone added three questions to a mandatory Title IX school climate survey withouot following the district's process. The problems snowballed as parents went uninformed and students felt pressured to answer questions that should have been optional, members said.

"I believe the intent behind the survey was good ... but, in my opinion, judgment was lacking in the content of these three questions, the process through which they were added, and the communication behind the survey," board Chair Elyse Dashew said in a Facebook post.

Students in grades six to 12 were asked to give their sexual orientation and indicate whether they’re transgender. Those in grades five and up were asked whether they identify as male, female, non-binary or gender fluid.

The material CMS sent to schools to introduce the surveys, which are being administered Feb. 10 to 28, contained no mention of the new material. Superintendent Earnest Winston has not responded to questions about whether he knew about the questions when he signed an introductory letter to teachers.

Board members Rhonda Cheek and Jennifer De La Jara said they were told that Winston, who has two daughters in CMS, was caught off guard -- along with school board members -- when parent concerns about privacy and age appropriateness surfaced late last week.

"It is my understanding that he was out of the loop," De La Jara said.

On Saturday, Winston posted on social media that the questions were being withdrawn and any answers already logged would be erased. His statement did not acknowledge mistakes but said he was withdrawing the questions because he didn't want the controversy to distract from the district's work. 

Were Students Pressured?

Winston and Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes have emphasized that students have the right to opt out of the survey or any individual questions. But several parents say their kids weren't told about that option or were specifically told they had to complete the survey.

WFAE requested the material that CMS sent to schools in connection with the survey. A flyer for schools contains a line in red type: "Administration of this survey is REQUIRED for compliance with Title IX." It does not mention letting students opt out, nor warn of the new material.

It does note that students have to enter their student ID to take the online survey. "Note: using a unique ID does not impact confidentiality," the flyer says.

Board member Sean Strain, who has children in CMS, says it's not reasonable "to lay this at the kids' feet" to opt out when their teachers are telling them to answer questions.

Tami Fitzgerald, of the North Carolina Values Coalition, said CMS may have violated a federal law that "requires participation to be voluntary when surveying on issues such as sexual behavior or attitudes; family relationships; religious practices, and socioeconomic status." The Values Coalition is a Raleigh-based group that describes itself as promoting family values and religious freedom; it has frequently clashed with CMS on issues related to LGBTQ students.

What Was The Point?

The school climate survey asks questions about safety, respectful treatment, bullying and belonging. After WFAE raised questions about it, the district's Department of Research, Evaluation and Analytics provided board members and media a copy of all 34 questions.

It indicates that students in all grade levels are asked whether students at their school are teased or picked on because of their race, ethnicity, cultural background, religion or physical or mental disability. Students are not asked to indicate their own status in those categories.

The new questions ask about sexual orientation, gender identity and whether students identify as transgender, but there are no questions about whether students are mistreated because of those identities.

Strain says he has been pushing for a strong survey of school climate that focuses on all students, not breaking out separate categories.

De La Jara, who has two kids in middle school, says her own children were comfortable with the discussion of sexual orientation but she understands why others are unhappy. She said her message to them is "that I understand their frustration, that I agree that it should not have happened the way that it happened." She added that CMS missed an opportunity to approach these questions effectively.

Dashew's Facebook message says Winston outlined five lessons learned:

  • CMS "wasn't direct with our families" about the new questions.
  • CMS needs to "communicate about surveys to families the way we communicate about severe weather" -- centrally and directly.
  • CMS should "be more intentional about better supporting schools."
  • Employees need to be reminded about "existing protocols."
  • "Staff must do a better job communicating with peers in other departments."

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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.