Many Maryland school systems resist national Youth Risk Behavior Survey State participation in CDC poll uncertain

March 14, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Maryland is looking for a few schools to participate in a national survey of students' driving, smoking, eating, drug and sex habits. It's turning out to be a difficult search.

The state Department of Education wants 4,500 students in ninth and 11th grade in 30 representative schools to answer 84 questions about behaviors that could put them at risk.

But some administrators around the state are saying "no" to a survey

that has been called controversial, invasive and even disruptive to instruction.

The department had hoped to use the anonymous questionnaire "to assess the risk-taking behaviors of high-schoolers" and use the information to plan preventive programs tailored to the state's adolescents, said Michele Prumo, a specialist in student services.

So far, only the Calvert County school system has said "yes" to the 1993 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, sponsored by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

in Atlanta.

In Montgomery County, where the survey has caused the biggest flap, school officials have turned down the study publicly, but they had not informed the state of their decision by late Friday. The state does have four firm "nays" from Kent, Dorchester, Worcester and Somerset counties.

Officials in some jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Baltimore County, are still barely familiar with the survey, and there has been no public debate. Other counties, including Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's, are looking at it but haven't decided.

The state had hoped to pick the sample schools this month and survey students in April. But Maryland's participation is now in doubt.

"We gave it our best shot," says Ms. Prumo, who presented the survey at a state school superintendents' meeting last week.

Long before that meeting, Montgomery County announced that its students would not participate because the survey violates its student privacy policy. The policy says that "no student shall be required to reveal, as part of the instructional program, matters relating to his/her personal life, those of his/her family or his/her status within the family."

Although the survey asks little about students' family lives, it delves into many personal habits. In the space of 84 questions, it asks youngsters how often they ride bicycles without a helmet, fasten seat belts

when they drive, eat potato chips, chew tobacco, inject illegal drugs, contemplate suicide and have sex -- protected and unprotected.

"The purpose . . . is basically to identify the prevalence of behaviors and whether that increases or decreases over time," says Dr. Cheryl Alexander, a researcher in adolescent behavior and health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "As a monitoring system, it's not too bad. It has some interesting things -- questions on exercise, diet and sports participation -- that don't have to do with problem behavior," she said.

But, because the survey looks at so many issues, it has only a few questions on each. That makes it very descriptive, but not very analytical, Dr. Alexander says.

When the national survey last was taken in 1991, more than 11,000 high school students from 29 states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia participated. Maryland students did not.

The CDC gives money and technical assistance to all of the states and to 16 large cities -- Baltimore is one of them -- for AIDS education and school health programs. CDC asks each state to survey its students, but does not tie its money to the survey, Ms. Prumo said.

In Montgomery County, the survey prompted a spirited objection from privacy activists.

"I know it's a violation of the privacy policy and we cut it off at the pass," says one of the survey's chief Maryland opponents, Malcolm Lawrence, coordinator of the Maryland Coalition of Concerned Parents.

Mr. Lawrence, a Chevy Chase resident, says the loosely knit coalition has been fighting "nosy questions" for 20 years and was instrumental in establishing the Montgomery County privacy policy. The retired foreign service officer, who now calls himself an education analyst and consultant, says some of the questions prompt youngsters to consider behaviors they might not otherwise consider.

For instance, the suicide questions:

"In the past 12 months, did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide . . . did you make a plan about how you would attempt suicide . . . how many times did you actually attempt suicide?"

Mr. Lawrence says, "Questions like these should not be put to a classroom of otherwise normal human beings."

He is, in fact, so opposed to the survey that he has written to President Clinton, suggesting that this "elaborate privacy-invading project" be considered a nonessential and wasteful program and "a prime candidate for termination."

A Montgomery County administrator said the survey was also rejected there because "it cuts into instruction" by taking students out of class for one period.

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