FAIRFIELD – The Board of Education amended a survey given to students in the public schools in response to concerns regarding the appropriateness of asking middle school and high school students about their gender identity and sexuality.
Fairfield CARES – a town sponsored “community coalition” to promote “healthy, responsible choices through prevention and education for youth, young adults, and families” – has surveyed students in grades seven through twelve every two years to gather youth perspectives.
In 2019, the coalition added questions approved by the Board of Education to gauge the demographics of LGBTQ students and track their risk for substance use, depression and suicide ideation.
But at a Nov. 29 Board of Education meeting, some board members raised new concerns about the appropriateness of such questions.
In the proposed 2023 survey, students are asked if they identify as transgender, their gender preference – man/boy, woman/girl, nonbinary, genderqueer, agender or an unlisted option – and to choose which orientation best described their sexuality – bisexual or pansexual, gay or lesbian, heterosexual or an unlisted option.
Parents would be notified of the survey beforehand by administration and have the option to opt out. Additionally, students could skip all questions apart from reporting their grade level.
But at the November meeting, board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly questioned whether the survey violated the district’s own recent guidance, which advised educators to be cautious about entering into conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with students.
“We just issued this guidance,” Maxon-Kennelly said. “And I don’t think we can be consistent by allowing another outside agency to ask the questions that we’ve just told staff not to ask.”
Maxon-Kennelly acknowledged the need to support LGBTQ students, but questioned whether the survey questions were needed given current research.
Given that the survey was administered by an outside entity and was confidential and optional, board member Christine Vitale responded that it did not violate recent guidance. She added that the survey was a valuable tool to provide support and programming for LGBTQ students.
“History has shown that they are struggling,” Vitale said. “I think that having the data point is important because you have the data point, you see where the struggles are, hopefully you implement programming, and then you measure again and you see if the program that you implemented made a difference.”
According to a national 2017 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46.7 percent of high school students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, compared to 13.3 percent of heterosexual students.
After the November meeting, Fairfield CARES submitted an amended version of the questions for board approval. The new survey asked only whether a student identified as male, female, nonbinary or not listed, removed sexual orientation options and instead plainly asked whether students identified as LGBTQ and deleted the previous transgender question altogether.
At the Tuesday meeting, Cathy Hazlett, program director and coalition coordinator for Fairfield CARES, told board members that staff conferred with a small group of LGBTQ student advocates after their debate and decided they could “do better.”
“When we looked at the transgender question, we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Why are we even pulling out the transgender folks individually, isolating from all the other LGBTQ members of the community? That just doesn’t make sense. We’re not going to do anything separate,’” Hazlett told board members.
Hazlett said that while in the past, Fairfield CARES has asked about transgender identity, staff looked at the issue from a “very pragmatic perspective,” and decided they only needed demographics for the full LGBTQ student population, not specific identities.
Board member Jeff Peterson told Hazlett that he appreciated the language changes, and clarified that his previous hesitation came from the recent administrative guidance.
“I was concerned, primarily, whether these questions were in conflict with the guidance that we had just issued,” Robertson said. “A close reading of both the survey and the guidance – I think they are not in conflict, which is one of the reasons that I’m far more comfortable now doing this.”
But most board members said they were hesitant to approve the amended text, citing a loss in longitudinal data for transgender students and for setting a troubling precedent.
Vitale said that at the November meeting, Fairfield CARES staff discussed additional challenges that transgender students face and emphasized the value in breaking down subgroups of the LGBTQ community to quantify their needs.
“I’m concerned about losing that longitudinal data and valuable information on how we can best serve this population of students,” Vitale said.
Vitale said that she was surprised by the conversation at their last meeting, especially given the unanimous support the survey received in the past.
Member Jessica Gerber said that while we understood the rationale behind the text changes, she was more concerned with the reaction of the board at the November meeting. She said she feared their recent qualms were in response to “ugly” emails.
“I’m just troubled that we’re setting a precedent here, and I’m hoping that this is not the result of some really ugly and inflammatory emails that we received that used some really horrible language regarding and making inferences about the questions that are being asked,” Gerber said. “And I sincerely hope that that’s not the reason behind it, but I worry that will be perceived as the reason behind it.”
During a public comment portion of the meeting, parent Erica Garvey, said parents were allowed to be worried and ask the questions, and said it was not right for anyone to say that concerned parents were against the LGBTQ community.
Garvey said parents want Fairfield CARES to continue the great work they’re doing, but said she did not appreciate the original survey questions.
“I will tell you that the original survey absolutely crossed the line, not only in accordance with the binding guidelines that Dr. Tracy put forward, but with what we said we were all going to do as a community,” Garvey said.
Garvey added that her issue was not with the LGBTQ community, but with the ages of students being surveyed.
“Some parents talk about love is love, and you can marry who you want. That certainly happens at our home,” Garvey said. “But what we don’t talk about is… who you’re going to be sexual with, because it’s not appropriate. And these are two different topics, so let’s not cross them.”
Parent Annalise Caron said that in her experience as a child and adolescent psychologist, children often identify as members of the LGBTQ community by and before seventh grade, and said students openly discuss their identities with one another.
Caron said she was in support of new teacher guidelines, but also backed the amended survey.
“I both 100 percent agree with the spirit of not having teachers be allowed to ask people about their identity, how they identify, and I also support the Fairfield CARES anonymous survey with the amended questions,” Caron said.
Caron added that while parents were right in saying some 12-year-olds may not understand some of the vocabulary in the original draft of the survey, students had the option to skip questions they were uncomfortable with or unsure of.
The board voted to approve the amendments to survey questions with eight in support and one opposed, and ultimately approved the survey itself with a seven to two vote.