Ray Carter | March 14, 2022

'Opt-in' policies a response to graphic school material?

Ray Carter

The inclusion of content many parents view as inappropriate and/or intrusive in school surveys and other materials is leading some officials to suggest schools should have to receive parental permission in advance.

Such policies, referred to as “opt-in” policies, are in contrast to the current standard in which parents must proactively “opt out” their children.

Erika Sanzi, director of outreach at Parents Defending Education, a national organization, says school surveys in particular should be subject to an “opt in” policy.

“The questions have gotten increasingly intrusive about personal and private issues,” Sanzi said. “I think that when a parent hears about a student survey, what they think of is not really what they look like now.”

Sanzi said she was among the parents who did not realize how intrusive school surveys had become—until she was confronted with one during a COVID shutdown of in-person learning.

“I’m not really the kind of person that gets all freaked out about this stuff,” Sanzi said. “My son, because of COVID, he was taking a survey at home when he was 11 and he was reading these question choices out loud, and I was like, ‘What is that?’”

She said three categories that most concern parents are questions about sexual orientation, gender identity, and suicide.

In many cases, Sanzi said the same surveys will be given to students from the sixth to 12th grades, “so that means 11-year-olds are being asked questions, often about things for which they have no frame of reference at all, and also things that sometimes scare them because they’re not things that they’ve ever thought about.”

For example, she said the options now being listed for sexual orientation often include phrases a typical child has never heard such as “demisexual” or “pansexual.”

A recent “Oklahoma Preventative Needs Assessment Survey,” reportedly given to students starting in the eighth grade in the Bixby district, is similar to those highlighted by Sanzi. Bixby parents have said a similar survey was provided to students in the sixth grade.

The survey asked students, “What sex were you assigned at birth?” and then asked students to identify “your current gender identity.” Among the listed options were “Transgender man (FTM),” “Transgender woman (MTF),” “Two-Spirit,” “Gender non-binary,” “Genderqueer” and “Gender fluid.”

Students were also asked which label “best describes you” with options that included bisexual, pansexual, “I describe my sexual orientation some other way,” “I am not sure about my sexual orientation (questioning),” and “I don't know what this question is asking.”

Demographic questions on the survey indicated participating students could be age “10 or younger.”

Defenders of such school surveys say districts should be aware of students struggling with issues like suicide, substance abuse, and emotional problems.

But Sanzi and other parents say the surveys often serve to introduce children to concepts and practices. Sanzi said the surveys are “making the outliers, the most extreme cases, the most dysfunctional situations, the default for everybody, including kids who are still in a stage of innocence where they don’t know about any of this stuff, and the school is now introducing it by giving them this survey.”

Sanzi also noted data from surveys is used by schools to justify expenditures on a range of programming typically lumped under the “diversity, equity and inclusion” umbrella. Many of those programs have proven controversial among the general populace in states across the country.

In Oklahoma, discussion of “opt in” policies have been discussed for other materials that schools are providing to students.

In the Broken Arrow district, a mother recently objected after her daughter’s class was shown a documentary that included a graphic description of rape. (The documentary also included use of a racial pejorative.)

Objections over graphic portrayal of rape, incest, and other similar topics in school-library materials have also led to discussion of whether families should be given the chance to opt-in their children before they are exposed to such materials rather than the current system in which parents must proactively opt-out children.

Those debates are occurring against a backdrop in which many parents are supporting school-choice expansion, which would allow money to follow a child to any education provider, including private schools. Polling has shown strong voter support for greater school-choice opportunity in Oklahoma.

When parents cannot leave a school that doesn’t serve their children, administrators often disregard parental concerns about the age-appropriateness of materials being presented to students, including those in the elementary grades, according to critics.

Sanzi said the issues covered by some school surveys may be relevant—but only a small sliver of students—yet all students are being treated the same, potentially to the emotional detriment of the majority.

“I can see why you want to know about the kids that are struggling with some of these things,” Sanzi said, “but the problem is you’ve now made it every other kid’s problem.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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