Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital
Committee on Education
Council of the District of Columbia
Bill 21-361, the “Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015”
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony on Bill 21-361, the “Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015”. My name is Monica Hopkins-Maxwell and I am Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital (ACLU-DC). I am here today on behalf of our more than 3,000 members across all eight wards in the District of Columbia.
The ACLU-DC supports the intent of Bill 21-361 and commends your leadership on the critical issue of youth suicide prevention. This Committee’s hearing on October 27, 2015, provided a public platform to present powerful statistical and anecdotal evidence about the need for this legislation and the need for continuing training and resources.
Our testimony today focuses on the administration of the school climate survey. Specifically, we propose clarifying language to protect the privacy rights of students, encourage full participation, and produce more accurate results. We believe that there are a number of factors that contribute to the need for explicit legislative language on student privacy. First, mandatory administration may create a systemic pressure to achieve results, and such pressure may trickle down to compel student participation. Second, administration of the survey at school, and by school personnel, creates an inherent pressure for students to participate. According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) for the District of Columbia, current administration of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey takes an entire class period to administer. It is not entirely clear whether such surveys are actually conducted in the classroom, but if so, such pressure to answer highly sensitive personal information in a public setting may be counterproductive for students that are not ready or willing to share. Third, the legislation mandates sharing disaggregated data by race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, English proficiency, and disabilities in a published report.
II. Right to Privacy
The right to privacy extends to students in a school setting. Students have the constitutional right to share or withhold information about their sexual orientation or gender identity from their parents, teachers, and other parties, and it is against the law for school officials to disclose, or compel students to disclose that information. Even when a student appears to be open about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity at school, it is that student’s right to limit the extent to which, and with whom, the information is shared.
The ACLU-DC believes that clear and unambiguous language that guarantees student anonymity will benefit this proposal’s intent. By its nature, the mandated data to be collected (and in some cases that is already being collected), is sensitive. Most of us can remember taking tests at school and seeing kids with their heads down and arm bent around papers in an attempt to shield it from others. These are questions about obesity, HIV infection, STDs, drug use, suicide ideation, experiencing violence, weapon-carrying, gender identity, and sexual orientation. The ramifications of involuntarily or inadvertently sharing such sensitive data with peers, or school personnel, can be significant.
III. Privacy Protections
Explicit privacy protections and exploring alternative ways to administer these surveys will foster a sense of security for students. Alternative methods such as online surveys, unique identifier numbers, and confidentiality statements by survey administrators should be explored. The legislation requires disaggregated data to be shared with OSSE and then published in an online report with school-level aggregate data. This data must be published in a way that is not potentially identifying. Privacy protection must contemplate the possibility of unintentionally identifying students. For example, if a school shares data broken down by ethnic groups, and a school has a small number of a particular ethnic group, this may unintentionally publish extremely sensitive information.
ACLU-DC fully supports the intent of Bill 21-361 and believes in the importance of developing data driven policies. However, we must be cognizant of the process used to collect this data and ensure the privacy of our students. Protecting the privacy of our students will encourage full participation, produce more accurate data, and facilitate the proper allocation of training and resources.
 Office of the State Superintendent of Education. 2012-13 DC Youth Risk Behavior Survey Fact Sheet. Available at, http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/YRBS%20Fact%20Sheet%202012-13%20FINAL.pdf (last visited: Nov. 11, 2015)
 American Civil Liberties Union. Letter to School Officials Regarding LGBT Student Privacy. Available at, https://www.aclu.org/letter/letter-school-officials-regarding-lgbt-student-privacy. (last visited: Nov. 11, 2015)
 Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015. Page 6, lines 144-149. Available at, http://lims.dccouncil.us/Download/34497/B21-0361-Introduction.pdf(last visited: Nov. 11, 2015)