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Most CMS families aren't responding to 'parent rights' permission requests

Smile North Carolina offers on-site dental care at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
CMS YouTube
Smile North Carolina offers on-site dental care at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Tens of thousands of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are missing out on sex education, health screenings and well-being surveys this year because of the district’s response to a new state Parents’ Bill of Rights.

The 12-page bill approved in July includes a multitude of requirements, such as ensuring that parents can review all classroom material and notifying parents if their kids ask to use a different name or pronouns. It also requires parental consent for students to participate in health services, surveys and sex education.

The CMS board acted quickly to revise its policies before classes began in August. Among the changes: CMS used to let students participate in surveys, screenings and sex ed unless their parents opted out, but now it requires them to opt in through an online consent form.

Before leaving the board in December, Jennifer De La Jara requested participation data. As she expected, the vast majority of parents simply didn’t respond. For instance, more than 58,000 students were eligible to take part in sex education during the first semester, but fewer than 22,000 submitted consent forms. Trends were similar for a Panorama survey that asks about some touchy subjects — and for seemingly unobjectionable activities such as vision, hearing and dental screenings.

Suicide prevention screenings include 159 'yes' and 26 'no' responses.
Jennifer Lang and Layna Hong/WFAE
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools data
Suicide prevention screenings include 159 'yes' and 26 'no' responses.

De La Jara said in December she suspects it’s not that parents don’t want their kids to take part, but that they’re deterred by cumbersome forms. For instance, some online forms require parents to enter a student ID number.

“Many parents don’t have that readily available and I think that they’re turning it off and just not doing it,” De La Jara said.

Advice to NC districts trying to comply

But it’s not clear that other North Carolina districts will see similar effects. Many took more time to review policies, and in October state lawmakers extended the deadline to this week. The law clearly requires explicit permission for students to take part in surveys that ask about mental health, sexual behavior, political beliefs, religious practices and “illegal, antisocial, self-incriminating or demeaning behavior.” But state officials say it doesn’t ban an opt-out system for sex ed or health screenings.

“It seems as though some districts are looking to be overly cautious and very thorough in what they provide to parents in an effort to be in compliance,” Department of Public Instruction Communications Director Blair Rhoades wrote in response to a query about the CMS participation numbers.

The North Carolina School Boards Association has also advised districts that opt-out is allowed for sex education, but notes that local boards can choose to require families to opt in, Policy Director Christine Scheef said.

Impact on surveys that ask sensitive questions

De La Jara says she’s especially concerned about reduced participation in surveys that ask about sensitive subjects. “This data helps us understand suicide ideation numbers, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and reproductive health,” De La Jara said.

The largest of those surveys is produced by Panorama Education, which works with about half a dozen North Carolina districts, including CMS, Wake, Winston Salem-Forsyth, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Johnston and Rowan-Salisbury. CMS has budgeted $253,500 for the Panorama survey this year.

Last year only 324 families asked that their children not participate in the Panorama survey, according to numbers provided by CMS. This year almost 110,000 students were eligible to participate, but only 36,800 opted in. More than 60% of parents simply didn’t respond — and of those who did, just over 90% gave consent.

Plunging participation makes the data less reliable and not comparable to previous years. De La Jara says that affects not only CMS, but other agencies that use the data to get funding for after-school support programs. She cited Alianza, a substance-abuse prevention program targeting Latino students, as an example.

CMS also reported even lower parent response rates from three other surveys it conducts, including a youth drug screening.

The drop in sex ed and screenings in CMS

CMS sought permission for more than 58,000 students to take sex education, formally known as reproductive health and safety education. More than 36,000 families, or almost 63%, didn’t respond. Of those who did, 94% consented to their children’s participation.

Results for vision, hearing and dental screenings were even more dramatic, with response rates below 10%. That meant more than 74,000 students couldn’t participate in one or more of those screenings because their families hadn’t opted in.

The district also asked for permission to do suicide prevention screening for almost 21,000 students and depression screening for about 10,500. Fewer than 1% of parents responded to either request, the CMS numbers show. But more than 80% of those who did respond said yes.

Other districts’ responses vary

The Parents’ Bill of Rights requires districts to notify parents of any physical or mental health services offered and provide “the means for the parent to provide consent for any specific service.” It also requires that parents can “consent or withhold consent for participation in reproductive health and safety programs.”

Wake County, the state’s largest district, recently approved a parental involvement policy that requires written consent for participation in “certain health services as required by law” and surveys “concerning protected topics." But Wake requires action from parents only if they want to opt their kids out of sex education.

The Union County school board also recently adopted policies that clarified the need for written consent for surveys on protected topics, but left the sex-education opt-out policy unchanged.

In Iredell-Statesville Schools, spokeswoman Jada Jonas says parents have been required to opt into sex education participation for years. She said the district will begin seeking permission for vision, hearing and dental screenings “as we move toward fully implementing the Parents’ Bill of Rights.” She said the district’s only survey is an optional school climate survey.

In CMS, De La Jara said Superintendent Crystal Hill and her staff were looking at ways to make the opt-in process easier, including for sex education, and hoping for adjustments from the state as well. “We know based on previous opt-out data that there’s not a real groundswell of parents that don’t want this education for their children,” she said.

De La Jara says the district will also work harder to reach families and urge them to do consent forms. But she noted that family communications must be “in multiple, multiple languages.”

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Updated: January 3, 2024 at 12:00 PM EST
Updated to add the cost of the Panorama survey to CMS.
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.