SMITHFIELD – A student survey for a math project has upset parents of some sixth graders at a Johnston County Public School. The parents said they were never notified in advance about the LGBTQ rights and Racial Equality surveys sent to their children at the Innovation Academy in Smithfield. The two parents we spoke with claim the surveys were not anonymous even though school administrators claim they were. School officials are defending their actions saying there has been no wrongdoing.
The two parents spoke to Johnston County Report about their concerns. They requested anonymity so their children, both in the sixth grade at the Innovation Academy, could not be publicly identified.
According to them, older students at Innovation Academy were doing a project based learning analytics assignment and had to come up with surveys and survey topics for their math class. One parent said she was told the surveys were prepared by high school-age students, while the other was told it was prepared by seventh graders. Regardless, the surveys were sent to an unknown number of students and adults at the school including a group of sixth graders.
Survey Was Not Anonymous
“The first concern I had was on the racial equality survey. It specifically asks for (my child’s) name, so it was not anonymous. It asked for his religious belief leaving him susceptible to scrutiny by his peers on a survey that is no longer anonymous. The second one was the LGBTQ rights survey. We are a Christian household. I respect everyone and treat them fairly. This is a sensitive subject for an 11 year-old. Why were parents not included to review this?” the first concerned parent asked.
“He felt like it was part of his assignment and if he didn’t turn it in, he would get in trouble. I don’t feel like this was handled like it should have been.”
“I initially called the school and expressed my concerns and a message was left with the principal, Mrs. Kelley Johnson, and she replied to me by email. Then we began conversing through email. I did not receive a response from her I felt was justified. I reached out to (Central Office) and spoke to (Area Superintendent) Dr. David Pearce. He did reach out to the principal and talk with her about everything and left it with her to resolve the issue.”
“The resolution email I got from her is that she didn’t understand the harm. It was a math class and it was for data and she did not see the issue. She said there may have been some sensitive information but did not see the concern. The email I got had an open-ended answer and no real true desire to adjust the content and start over or send anything out to the parents.”
Parents Need To Be Informed
“I am just kind of hoping to get educators to understand this is sensitive information and these kids are young. Before we send out surveys like this, parents need to be informed. These emails were going to students and I’m not getting any answers from the school on how the teachers were involved in the survey.”
“It is a sensitive topic… We have not introduced the LGBTQ topic into our household yet and I think this was the biggest shock to me. I was not ready to do that with my child yet. If it is going to be introduced to my child, I would like to introduce it to them myself and explain it to them before a survey. This is my frustration with the survey. There was no parental involvement. The way the survey was presented it concerns me. There was a link on the survey that he can read and look at this stuff. We love these people, work beside of them and live beside of them, but I don’t want him looking at that on the internet alone.”
The concerned parent said she emailed all seven members on the Johnston County Board of Education expressing her concerns. In the email to the board she wrote, “This situation only lends me to believe that someone in this school has an underlying motive to use math as an attempt to conveniently indoctrinate children with information without parent knowledge. Last I checked, project-based learning and math class did not require statistical data regarding LGBTQ issues, racial equality, or religion… I am confident they will continue to incorporate these topics into their curriculum without parental knowledge. I expect this project to be pulled from the school and I expect parents to be contacted with an explanation of what has happened and the resolution.”
Teachers Should Have Reviewed Surveys
The second parent said she called the Innovation Academy to complain but still hasn’t gotten any answers. “I feel like the teacher should have been reviewing it. What 7th grader comes up with that on their own? I don’t see where a 7th grader pulls these issues out and puts them in a survey. I feel like some of the topics were planted. If it were my child, they would be asking questions like what is your favorite sport, what is your favorite baseball player. He wouldn’t be asking questions about LGBTQ or racial equality. We need to know what was going on.”
“It was an assignment through the school but because it was a student survey, they were not reviewing it? If it was an assignment, even if it was a math assignment, it was not a valid survey by asking their name. It was more subjective than objective. If it was academic, why wasn’t the teacher reviewing it and making sure it was an appropriate survey format to be counted in their data collection?”
“I have no problem with my child helping with data collection and them learning, but I have a problem with the subject matter. This needs to be discussed at home. There are a lot of parents who didn’t know about this until I texted them and told them to check their child’s email. A lot of parents don’t want to make waves but one parent may be moving their child to another school. A lot of people aren’t going to say anything because they fear it will make it harder on their child. I called the school and they will likely make it harder on my child.”
Surveys Were Not Anonymous, Parents Contend
One of the parents shared an email with us that she received from Principal Johnson. It states, “The surveys are anonymous and the students who received them agreed ahead of time to receiving a survey. The students who developed the surveys had voice and choice in the topics they focused on, and the students who agreed to receive them can always decline participation at any time and for any reason. The collection of the data is all part of a math assignment that is part of a PBL the 2nd year Pioneers are working on.”
Both parents we spoke with said their 11 year-old children did not know the surveys were optional. They appeared in their email accounts with other remote learning instructional assignments to complete. They also pointed out the racial equality survey specifically asked for their child’s name. They said their children did not realize it was optional not to participate in the surveys or include their names. The LGBT survey response is also linked to their email address so it also isn’t anonymous, they allege.
In a second email from the school principal to a concerned parent Mrs. Johnson reportedly wrote, “The assignment that was presented to students has allowed each individual to use their passions to make a positive impact on the world… The surveys were designed around the topics students chose and intended to collect data that includes quantitative and qualitative data on the topic. The collection of this data is essential as students use the mathematical skills of analysis. The questions presented are also essential as students will begin to develop and articulate their perspectives based on research and data collected throughout this process.”
“This authentic and real-world learning experience is important to students as they engage in real world issues as they find their voice and passions… We recognize that not every topic students chose was something everyone would feel good about, and we are reflecting with our team and our students on how to make sure we reach our learning goals while also maintaining everyone’s integrity,” the principal stated in the email.
Superintendent, Board Chair Response
Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy said he supports teachers and their challenging assignments but he has asked staff to update guidance for teachers on how to handle controversial topics.
“JCPS requires that parents be notified of surveys administered by school staff and have the chance to refuse consent for any survey that requests sensitive information. This includes surveys of student attitudes about gender identity and sexual orientation,” Dr. Bracy said. “The surveys in this case were not administered by school staff. A team of teachers at one of our schools designed a project-based learning assignment for seventh-graders in which students were to develop their own surveys of adults and other students and analyze the results. Students were allowed to choose topics that interested them. Students chose topics including pollution, poverty, hunger, sports, dress codes, and video games.”
“Several students and adults received surveys about LGBT attitudes as part of student projects. Because this was not a staff-administered survey, our parent notification rules did not apply. However, we recognize that parents are concerned about how controversial topics are taught at school, whether as part of an assignment or in classroom discussion by students. This is particularly true in the case of younger students. I am asking instructional services staff to develop detailed, up-to-date guidance for teachers on how to teach controversial subjects and how to moderate student discussion of these topics. We will be sharing our guidance with the Board’s Policy Committee.”
“I fully support our teachers at Innovation Academy and throughout the system as they design engaging and challenging assignments for our students during this very difficult school year,” Dr. Bracy said.
School Board Chairman Todd Sutton added, “Dr. Bracy and I agree that JCPS should notify parents of school surveys that ask students about personal information. In this case, I am told that the survey was part of a student’s class project – not a school survey – that was given to a small number of students and adults. I appreciate the parent’s concern and also efforts by the school to explain the class project.”
Survey Topic Was Out Of Bounds
Tony Nixon, Chairman of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization, agreed with the concerned parents saying the surveys have no place in an elementary classroom. “There is nothing that a sixth grader could say in a racial equality survey of any credible information. No way. How could they be accountable for that at 11 years-old? And a sixth grader has no idea what LGBTQ means. That is out of bounds. Where does it end?”
LGBTQ Advocate Says Survey Was Inappropriate For 11 Year-Olds
Rev. Dr. Wendy Ella May, an LGBTQ advocate and the first LGBTQ political candidate in Johnston County, said asking these questions to elementary students was wrong.
“I think it is a very inappropriate survey. First of all, to ask an 11 year-old about LGBTQ. Second of all, without contacting parents it is inappropriate. I would like to know the stance of the present members of the Johnston County Board of Education on this. This does not seem to be an appropriate question for a sixth grader. This is a very sensitive matter and not to have contact with the parents and have parental input, that bothers me.”
Johnston County Report reached out to Principal Johnson and school board members Kay Carroll and Lyn Andrews, who are from Smithfield, for a response. They have not responded to our request for a comment.
“The Board of Education needs to have guidelines on this,” one of the concerned parents said. “Because we are in COVID-19 doesn’t mean they get free rein on what they can do.”
Because the controversial surveys were generated by students and not by teachers, school leaders, including one county commissioner, stand by the policy that parental notification was not required.
“I am sorry if anyone was offended…”
Tony Braswell, a Johnston County Commissioner and also a parent of a student who attends the school said Monday, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the subject manner or felt it was inappropriately used, or offensive, however, we must remember the survey was not generated by the school, or teacher, rather from students for an exercise in Math, and ultimately for a writing excise. This was only one of a wide range of topics the students chose and surveys were sent to an audience of students and adults. Once it was determined a student attached a video to the survey, proper steps were taken by the school and the video was removed.”
“Project based learning has been used at Innovation Academy since my child’s enrollment three years ago and I think it allows students to apply objective thinking to interests and concerns we live with daily, while applying core learning practices. I personally would not have chosen this particular topic, however the selected topics were not censored by the team. As a member of the Parent and Community Involvement Committee at the school, we want to send a positive message of the good things this school has accomplished and will accomplish in the future. I believe the school addressed each parent concerns and seeks the proper resolution, and this happened in this case,” Mr. Braswell said.