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Article updated: 5/29/2013 12:15 AM

Batavia school board disciplines teacher after survey flap

School board says he ‘mischaracterized’ intentions of survey

By Susan Sarkauskas

The Batavia school board Tuesday disciplined high school teacher John Dryden, saying he had "mischaracterized" the intentions of teachers and administrators when he advised students they had the right not to incriminate theselves, before administering a survey about risky behavior.

Only one board member, Jon Gaspar, voted "no." He declined to specify why he voted that way, other than to say it was due to his "feelings."

Dryden will receive a letter of remedy, which outlines certain actions he must do or face more consequences. Superintendent Jack Barshinger declined to specify what the remedies are, asking instead that reporters request the document via Freedom of Information Act requests.

Dryden, a social studies teacher, told three of his classes that they had a Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate themselves when they took a social-emotional learning survey April 18. Some of the 34 questions asked students about their drug and alcohol use, as well as about their emotions. Their names were on the surveys, as it was intended to identify students who could use help, according to school district officials. Those whose answers raised red flags were called in to the school's student services workers, including social workers and counselors.

Barshinger said there was no Fifth Amendment issue, for several reasons. Once students' names were on them, he said, they would have become student records and subject to student privacy laws. And students cannot incriminate themselves because, even if the district shared the information with police, police can't prosecute based on that, he said. They are only allowed to arrest students if they are harming other students, such as in a fight, or if the student is in possession of drugs or alcohol, Barshinger said.

Board president Cathy Dremel, speaking on behalf of the board, said Dryden "mischaracterized" the efforts of fellow teachers and administrators, some of who had worked on a committee for a year to find a survey instrument that would assess students' risky behavior.

"The board will not support any employees giving students false impressions about those who come here every day" to work for their best interests, she said.

Dryden met with the board in closed session for at least an hour. He was not there when the board voted.

Several speakers told the school board Tuesday that rather than being disciplined, Dryden should have been praised for reminding students they have the right to not incriminate themselves.

"I thought it was too personal. I felt like if you really want to know what is going on in our heads, call us down individually to meet with a professional," said Nick Kelly, student board member, who refused to take the survey.

"I think he was right in what he did. I think he gave them a real-life lesson," said resident Greg Chapman.

"You really did do a well-intentioned thing; I think you could do it better," said former student Joe Bertalmio, who had spread the word on Facebook about Dryden's situation.

Dryden did not address the board in its public session Tuesday. In a Daily Herald article, he said that if he had seen the survey earlier, he would have asked administrators about his concerns.

"We as teachers were put in a situation where we were forced to react, Things were not communicated very well, students were apprehensive and had questions, and we couldn't give answers," said Scott Bayer, a social studies teacher and wrestling coach at the high school.

Several parents said they had not received notice from the district that they could choose to not have their child take the survey. The district sent the notice via email. Meg Humphrey, a biology teacher at the high school and parent of a student, said she was worried about the privacy of the information, particularly since the survey and its results are shared with the private company that sold the survey.

"I was not made aware a survey was going to be issued to my son, and basically was not given any opportunity to protect his privacy rights," she said.

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