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Privacy Law Reduces Student Participation In Drug Survey

Micah Baldwin, flickr Creative Commons

New Kansas privacy laws have reduced the number of students participating in an annual survey that measures substance abuse.

Mental health officials say the data from the Kansas Communities That Care survey, which has been conducted for two decades, has been invaluable in forming programs to fight substance abuse.

However, an amendment to a data privacy bill passed last year.

The amendment requires parental permission before students answer any surveys with questions about issues such as sex, religion or family life.

Several school district attorneys decided that the law applied to the survey because it contains questions about family life.

About 100,000 Kansas students filled out the survey in previous years, but the number this year could be as low as 25,000.

"Everybody was like, 'Holy criminy, how did this get passed?"' said Michelle Voth, executive director of the Kansas Family Partnership in Topeka.

The original goal of the bill was to address the privacy concerns of those who oppose the national Common Core education guidelines for math and English, partly because of concern it will lead to the widespread sharing of confidential data about individual students.

Mental health agencies point out that none of the survey answers can be traced back to individual students.

"This questionnaire is anonymous, it's voluntary and the data's confidential," said Shana Burgess, manager of prevention services at the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

The data has helped agencies target their efforts, such as moving the focus to middle school when the data showed that students were beginning to experiment with alcohol about age 13, Burgess said.

But even anonymous data could be traced back to individual students in the case of small, rural school districts, former state school board member Walt Chappell said, adding that he'd need to be convinced that the data was valuable enough to risk the invasion of privacy.

"Does it help to reduce drug use?" he asked. "Does it really make a difference?"

The survey has privacy protections that guarantee that the data won't be shared, according to Lisa Chaney, director of research at the Girard-based Southeast Kansas Education Service Center, the state contractor that administers the survey.