House committee recommends bill to make Youth Risk Behavior Survey opt-in

By: - March 11, 2022 12:58 pm
State House dome and the state flag

The full House is set to take up the bill Tuesday. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Public health, law enforcement, and school leaders have described the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey as critical to understanding the scope of substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, and even unhealthy eating habits among the state’s high schoolers. 

The data from the anonymous survey not only guides policy decisions but is often required to obtain federal and other funding to address those health concerns.

That’s at risk, the survey’s supporters say, under a 10-9 House committee recommendation that the survey become opt-in instead of opt-out. The full House is set to take up the bill Tuesday.

During a public hearing on House Bill 1639, Chiahui Chawla of the Division of Public Health Services told the House Education Committee that the one school that tried opt-in reversed course after few parents responded.

Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Litchfield Republican, told the committee he sponsored the bill because during his time as a school board member, his “spies” told him students don’t take the survey seriously. He argued that parents should know their children are being asked about their sexual activity and dating violence.

“The school’s responsibility is to not be social workers,” he said. “These surveys only interfere with the student learning activities.” 

Boehm did not note that the survey questions are on the Department of Health and Human Services website and past years’ results as well as 10-year trends are available there and the Department of Education website. Nor did he note that parents can opt their children out of the survey.

Those who testified against the bill included Franklin Police Chief Dave Goldstein. He said the city has used the results of the survey to apply for a multi-million-dollar federal grant to understand local youth drug abuse and identify the best prevention programs.

“In public health … these are the types of questions we have to ask if we want to know what’s going on,” he said. “Do we want to turn a blind eye to some of these questions?”

On its website, Health and Human Services links to nearly 20 letters of support for the survey from public health, school nurse, and school counselor associations. As of Friday, 64 people had registered opposition to the bill on the House’s website and 15 supported it. 

The survey is anonymous. But in their report to the full House, committee members who support the bill said the first seven questions would allow someone to “easily determine the identity of the student.” In the most recent survey, given last year, those questions were: age, sex, grade, race, height, weight, and whether a student identified as Hispanic or Latino.

The Department of Education has not taken a position on the bill.

(Screenshot: 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, www.education.nh.gov)

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.

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