Windsor School Officials Apologize for Sex-Related Survey Sent to Middle School Students

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2018 1:20:12 PM
Modified: 10/18/2018 1:04:10 PM

Windsor — School officials and researchers this week apologized for a survey administered to fifth-graders at the Windsor School that included questions about students’ gender identity and their romantic and sexual relationships.

They’ve also pledged to work with parents before conducting any additional research or violence prevention classes at the elementary school.

The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union said on Tuesday that it has suspended ties with WISE, the Lebanon-based nonprofit that offers sexual violence prevention programs in Upper Valley schools, because of the survey, which the organization sent to the school to evaluate the effectiveness of the nonprofit’s efforts.

In a statement to parents, Superintendent David Baker said administrators didn’t see the survey, which was written by University of New Hampshire researchers, before it was given to students.

“To any family involved in this survey, we sincerely apologize,” he said. “Sometimes, in an effort to do good, people go too far, too fast.”

When reached this week, Baker declined to answer questions on the school’s response to the survey or to provide a copy of the survey and the form announcing it to parents.

WISE also issued a statement on Tuesday saying the organization regrets not better engaging parents ahead of the survey, and will work with UNH and Windsor officials to redesign its evaluation.

“We deeply regret that we did not sufficiently engage parents at an earlier stage in the process,” WISE spokeswoman Betsy Kohl said on Tuesday. “Our strong relationship with the Windsor School District, parents, and the community at large is of the utmost importance to us.”

The survey asked students about their gender identity and whom they’re attracted to. A question also queried students on whether they had been involved in a romantic relationship in the last 12 months.

“By a relationship we mean more than friendship, like having a partner for planned events like a school dance or going to the movies, having a sexual partner, or hanging out in a group as a couple,” the questionnaire said.

A related survey also went to sixth-graders at the school.

The greater public learned about the survey last week after WPTZ-TV reported that some parents were upset about what they regarded as inappropriate questions for elementary schoolchildren. Windsor resident Vanessa Beach said her 10-year-old daughter brought home the survey and told her she was uncomfortable answering the questions.

Beach said she isn’t opposed to sex education but the survey didn’t provide any context or information to students, who came home with more questions than answers.

Beach also said she never received the form announcing the survey to parents, and she questioned why parents weren’t better informed.

Heather Prebish’s daughter also was given the survey. The fifth-grader later told her mother that she felt uncomfortable with the questions but felt compelled to answer them.

Prebish said she also didn’t receive a notice before the survey and called on the school district to better communicate with parents about the classes and surveys their children are asked to take.

“We want answers,” she said, adding that the district’s School Board and Windsor School Principal Tiffany Cassano haven’t committed to an open dialogue.

In his statement, Baker said his office and the Windsor School administration likely would have “been far more critical of both the survey and original permission letter that was sent home.” But they never got the chance to review the materials, he said.

“Unfortunately, with respect to the survey, the administration was caught completely off guard,” Baker said. “The contents of the survey were never shared with the administration.”

In a separate Facebook post, Baker said that a Windsor School employee received the survey in a sealed manila envelope and didn’t show it to the principal or administrators before distributing it to a class. Baker did not identify the employee or their role in the school district.

“That staff member thought, wrongly, that the administration had previewed the survey,” Baker said in the post. “It was a mistake and as I said in my letter to parents, we are taking the steps necessary to make sure it does not happen again.”

The survey was intended to mark the beginning of a five-year evaluation of WISE’s school violence prevention programs at three Upper Valley school districts, said Jane Stapleton, executive director of practice at UNH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center, a collaboration of experts and child care practitioners who develop and study programs aimed at ending sexual and relationship violence.

Preparation for the evaluation began a little more than a year ago, she said, after WISE contracted with UNH to perform the work.

Students in the other two districts, which UNH has declined to name, have not been given the survey, she said. It’s not yet clear whether they will be given updated or revised questions if the evaluation is restarted, Stapleton added.

“We have asked these questions because we know that some prevention programs resonate and are more effective with some populations more than others,” Stapleton said.

If researchers know a student’s biological sex, gender identity or experience with romantic relationships, they can better examine which programs are most effective with different groups of students, she said.

“We also know that some populations of students may experience higher rates of victimization,” Stapleton said, referring to students whose gender identity puts them at particular risk.

When asked whether the questions were appropriate for fifth-graders, Stapleton said that the survey was drafted using questions from evaluations of similar middle and high school programs. But she also acknowledged that the questions might need to be revised.

WISE began offering its school programs more than two decades ago in an attempt to curb the number of people affected by sexual and relationship violence in the Upper Valley, WISE Program Director Kate Rohdenburg said in a phone interview.

Because people between the ages of 12 and 24 are most at risk of experiencing those types of abuse, she said, it’s important that advocates work in school settings.

Over those 20 years, the organization has continued to build on the programs in hopes that promoting better interactions will help students acquire the skills needed to avoid violent behavior adults, Rohdenburg said.

WISE’s programs are particularly interesting because the organization offers one of the few middle school-based prevention programs in the U.S., Stapleton said. The programs are well-known for teaching children to seek support when they see potential bullying, hazing or harassment of others, she said.

While there is research on similar high school programs, “we don’t know scientifically a lot about prevention programs with children,” Stapleton said. “We’re really hoping to better understand the effectiveness of WISE’s prevention work.”

The UNH researchers spent about eight months developing the survey and having it evaluated by the university’s institutional review board, a group of scientists tasked with reviewing studies and protecting the rights of participating students.

Each student was asked in the survey to come up with a unique ID through a series of questions, such as “What is the first letter of your first name?” and “What is your birth month and year?” While the questions are personal, Stapleton said, they allow researchers to compare and follow student responses during the multiyear evaluation without identifying any of the children.

The university also takes great care in protecting the survey information, she said.

A designated teacher is supposed to distribute and collect surveys, which are then kept in a locked file inside a locked office at UNH, Stapleton said.

“We will not report individual students’ responses,” she said. “Rather, we will aggregate the findings when we report to both WISE and to the school.”

While student surveys can sometimes make parents uncomfortable, they do provide valuable information to physicians and educators hoping to provide support, said Dr. Steve Chapman, president of the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Surveys can be really helpful in helping us understand the issues that kids and families are dealing with,” said Chapman, who said he hadn’t seen the WISE study. “Many of the issues are just normal growth and development issues.”

The biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one such survey that practitioners rely on, said Chapman, director of the Boyle Community Pediatrics Program at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth. It asks high schoolers about sexual behavior, drug use, and sexual and relationship violence, among other topics.

But Chapman said it’s also important to get parents involved in those discussions and questions.

“Kids live with their parents and their guardians, and so the point is not to drive a wedge but to understand and sometimes surface issues than can be difficult to talk about,” he said.

Alice Ely, executive director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, also defended school surveys as necessary to gauge what students have either been exposed to or are experiencing in their own lives.

Children are being exposed to more at younger ages, she said, and educators need to know about it to safely navigate children into adulthood.

“In order to have these conversations among ourselves as a school and among our kids, we do need to have good information to what they’re exposed to and what they’re experiencing,” she said. “And I think we often are more comfortable believing that our preteens are not exposed (to conversations on sex) when in fact they are.”

But parents weren’t just uncomfortable with the WISE survey questions. They also questioned whether the Windsor School, or any elementary school in Vermont, should be allowed to conduct student surveys without parents actively giving permission to include their children.

WISE and the school’s guidance office sent a letter home to the families of fifth- and sixth-graders informing them of the survey and telling parents of their right to opt out, according to the district. But parents said it’s possible that students lost the notice or forgot to deliver it.

Windsor children taking the survey also were asked to sign a form before taking part and were told they could skip any questions or stop at any time without getting into trouble, Stapleton said.

Parents were also critical of Vermont’s “passive consent” regulations, which mandate that parents or guardians must sign a form if they do not want their child to participate in a survey or evaluation. By contrast, New Hampshire schools operate under an “active consent” system in which a signature usually is required before children can take part in a survey.

The Republican-led state Legislature in 2017 passed the law that mandates the so-called “opt-in” procedure to the dismay of many Democratic legislators and researchers, who cautioned that it could stifle research and skew the pool of students participating.

In his statement, Baker said the passive consent permission is “totally unacceptable” and called for parents to be given the chance to opt in. In a separate email, he also said the Windsor School will consider adopting a formal policy governing school surveys.

Baker said Windsor school administrators, including building principals, plan to meet with WISE to re-evaluate its work in the schools, while WISE officials said they’re open to rethinking the evaluation to address parent concerns.

Stapleton, the UNH researcher, said the university also is open to working with both groups.

“Do we need to rethink our approach? I think we do, and we’re ready to do that,” she said.

The Windsor School Board also is planning a meeting to discuss the matter but hasn’t decided on a date or time, Baker added.

Tim Camerato can be reached at or 603-727-3223.


Alice Ely is the executive director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported her first name.

Survey provided by University of New Hampshire.

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy