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posted: 5/31/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: However well meaning, student surveys raise serious questions

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Screening teens for mental health problems for which school staff can provide help.

Gauging which students are using drugs or alcohol.

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Alerting high schoolers that the U.S. Constitution applies to them, and isn't just a historic artifact they'll be tested on.

All good goals. And in the case of Batavia High School, all apparently pursued by sincere, well-meaning people. Yet, these laudable goals ended up on a collision course, with the resulting brouhaha raising big questions about a private company's role in collecting and storing sensitive information about teenage students.

In pursuing its goal of judging students' "emotional intelligence," the Batavia High School board and administrators unfortunately seem to have given far too little thought to government transparency and student privacy. On Tuesday, the school board disciplined a social studies teacher who pointed out those shortcomings, accusing John Dryden of making statements to students that "mischaracterize the efforts of our teachers, counselors, social workers and others."

Dryden's transgression: Reminding students that they have a 5th Amendment right not to incriminate themselves on the survey that included questions about their drug and alcohol use. The survey wasn't anonymous; each student's name was printed on his or her copy.

Dryden's real offense might have been focusing attention on the dismaying survey scenario, first reported by the Daily Herald's Susan Sarkauskas and now airing everywhere from Huffington Post to the Drudge Report.

The survey was handed out by teachers who were asked to first read aloud from a script telling students to be "open and honest" in their answers and that "it is important to respond to every item."

Neither the Daily Herald nor the public knows exactly what the survey asked. The school district refused to release it, calling the survey "proprietary commercial trade secret information" belonging to the vendor, Multi-Health Systems Inc. Students' responses went to the company, which says it will maintain confidentiality, and were shared with some school personnel.

School officials say parents were emailed that they could opt out in advance. Should they seek their child's information now, Multi-Health Systems Inc. allows for parents to be shown answers in some cases but "strongly opposes the release of copies," according to a company document provided by the school district.

So there you have it. A secret survey containing sensitive data on Batavia students, stored with a company that considers it proprietary commercial trade secret information.

It's hard to imagine why a school board even with the best interests of students at heart would sign up for something with more red flags than you'd find on a beach during a hurricane warning. (And pay $8,327 for it.)

Imagine the risk of some student's private and potentially illegal activity leaking out in the future. Imagine the risk of raising a generation, already primed by Facebook and surveillance cameras, that believes those in authority automatically have a right to every bit of information about everyone.

We don't know which would be more troubling -- a school board that dismissed such concerns, or one that never raised questions about them. Either way, a lot of people have Mr. Dryden to thank for a valuable lesson.

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