Politics intruding on Kids Survey, risky gamble

By Edwin J. Asturias, MD, at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Colorado School of Public Health, the Anschutz Medical Campus

My wife and I have two teenagers in the Denver Public Schools, and two more who are now responsible young adults in graduate school.  Yet despite the fact that I’m a pediatrician and my wife works in the healthcare field, we are no experts in adolescent behavior.

Whenever I talk to friends, parents and teachers about our kids the same age-old dread rears its head– the teenage years. That’s no surprise. After all, this is when children are spreading their wings, experimenting, finding out who they are and who they are not. And as parents, this is when we slowly lose our grip, when our influence on our kids wanes and we reluctantly take a step back and let them fly into the world.

We knew it had to happen, it’s been foretold for ages. We give birth, guard our kids from any risk and hopefully set them on the `right course’ for the future.

Then come the teenage years, some of the best, most adventurous times of our lives. And the most dangerous.

That’s why the  (HKCS) matters.  It’s like the Global Positioning System (better known as GPS) we all have in our phones or cars to navigate us towards our destination.  The more data available, the easier and more accurate the navigation.

The argument before the Board of Education is that the HKCS is intrusive because it asks “sensitive questions” and does not request permission from the parents thereby violating their rights.

These are thin arguments that fly in the face of the facts.

The survey is anonymous and voluntary. Concerned parents or children can opt-out of the survey without consequences.  Schools or districts can decide not to participate if they wish.

Public health and public safety have a lot in common and one thing they share is a reverence for good data. Imagine if Google maps or any other GPS system had to get our consent to post the address of our house? We would have to go back to the Dark Ages.

This survey is 25 years old and continues to provide the best data we have on when our teens get exposed to tobacco, alcohol or drugs. It tells us how often they encounter bullying and when they first become sexually active.

Thanks to the survey we now know that physically active teens on sports teams are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or engage in risky sexual behaviors. We also know that if teenagers use marijuana they are more likely to attempt suicide.

It is because of these statistics that institutions like Children’s Hospital Colorado and the Colorado School of Public Health on the Anschutz Medical Campus where I work have been able to help with programs that have reduced teen pregnancy and decreased dangers to kids.

If we allow a small, vocal group of parents and members of the Board of Education to mandate the opt-in for the teen survey, participation will decrease from 90% to less than two thirds of the kids. And guess who will likely stop taking the survey? Yes, the very teens most likely to get into trouble.

So let’s think again. If we follow this path and discard a successful model that has worked well for two decades what will we end up with? A survey that will only tell half the truth and point us in the wrong direction.

We’ll end up with wrong information as parents, a false sense of the environment our kids are actually living in and ultimately denying the true risks we want them to avoid.

If we want our teens to steer clear of things like drinking while driving, or the new wave of HIV/AIDS affecting Colorado, or poor lifestyle choices like smoking or unhealthy eating, we as parents need to know better and recognize the value of the survey.  Gambling with the best data system we have about our teens is like hiking blindfolded into a steep canyon, a foolish risk and one that is wholly unnecessary

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