Equity, culture surveys draw parental ire

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A parent is alleging Isle of Wight County Schools broke state law by not giving 30 days notice ahead of giving her son a survey.

Heidi Swartz contacted Smithfield High School Principal Bryan Thrift on Jan. 10, objecting to her son, Ethan, having been given what she described as an “equity survey” — with questions about bullying, race and sexual orientation — in his earth science class, and instructions to complete it by Jan. 14 for 50 points toward his overall grade for the course.

Virginia Code 22.1-79.3 mandates parents of public school students be provided 30 days advance notice and a way to opt out of any surveys that ask their children about their sexual lives, substance abuse or “other information that the school board deems to be sensitive in nature.”

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“We did not get a 30-day notice … Windsor High School is scheduled Jan. 25, and their letter went out Jan. 11,” Swartz told the members of Isle of Wight’s School Board during the public comment period at their Jan. 13 meeting.

“They are data-mining our children, and data-mining our families, to develop curriculum to sway opinion and minds,” added Laura Fletcher, another parent, who described the surveys as asking “leading questions regarding LGBTQ” issues.

According to IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, the school system actually sent out two surveys this month: one mandated by the state, and another one that is indeed a local equity survey.

The survey Swartz references is actually the state-mandated one, according to Thrift. It’s official name is the Virginia School Survey of Climate and Working Conditions, which is administered in partnership between the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

According to Thrift’s correspondence with Swartz, high schools are required to invite their students to complete the survey; however, participation is optional and anonymous. Its purpose, he told Swartz, is to monitor and ensure all students and staff have access to a healthy, safe and positive environment in which to learn, work, interact, and grow, whether remotely or in-person.”

But it was never meant to be counted as a graded assignment, he said, and only was listed as such because a teacher had made a mistake when distributing it to students electronically, causing it to be automatically assigned a point value.

The local equity survey will inform what Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton has termed an “equity audit.” This survey, Briggs said, is available on the division’s website and open to anyone — parents, students or members of the community.

It asks participants to rank 24 statements on a scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” including whether adults feel comfortable talking to students about news events pertaining to race or LGBT issues, whether IWCS curriculum ensures that diverse groups and cultures are positively represented and validated, and whether students and adults treat people from different races or cultures fairly.

Isle of Wight County Schools began the equity audit last fall. According to a proposal by Dr. Valaida Wise Consulting LLC, whom the division has hired to complete the process, the audit will “illuminate the school system’s history and current reality” and “make recommendations about practical, strategic and actionable next steps toward becoming an antiracist organization.” According to Briggs, the division hopes to have the audit’s report by the end of February.

The equity survey “does not fall under” the 30-day notice requirement stipulated in state law, Briggs said.

The state-mandated climate survey does, but, according to Briggs, the state “directed schools to notify parents 10 days prior to the distribution of the survey, not 30 as indicated in policy.”

“We are continuing to look into the matter and working with the VDOE to understand why the directions did not include the 30-day notification,” Briggs said.