OGDEN — The mother of a student at DaVinci Academy of Science and the Arts contends a research study conducted at the charter school by a Weber State University professor violated state regulations because it was done without proper parental consent.
Michelle Kimball, a Mountain Green resident whose 14-year-old daughter, Georgia, is a student at DaVinci, is questioning how the school and Todd Baird, a professor in Weber State’s Psychology Department, administered the 10-page survey to students in grades 9-11.
DaVinci Executive Director Fred Donaldson said the school has tried to appease Kimball and has even destroyed the survey results at her request.
“I don’t know what her issue is,” he said of Kimball’s persistent criticism of the survey. “I’ve bent over backwards and have said we will just fix it.”
Kimball said she remains concerned similar surveys may be conducted at DaVinci in the future.
“I am concerned they may try to do something like this again without getting informed parent consent,” she said.
“I just think parents need to be aware this is happening quite frequently and is invading the privacy of students on a regular basis. Students are accustomed to it. They don’t even realize it when their privacy is being invaded.”
The WSU survey was designed to measure the ability of students to see the world through the eyes of others, including their parents and friends.
It also aimed to increase the quality of relationships among students, their families and peers and was part of an assessment mndated by the Utah Board of Education, according to a consent letter Baird sent to parents.
Donaldson said he did not review the consent letter before it was sent but acknowledged its description of the survey as a state mandate was a “poor choice of words.”
The purpose of the survey was to comply with the state Department of Education’s Comprehensive Counseling Guidance Program that allows schools to conduct perception assessments to improve student achievement, he said.
“This is just one of many types of data projects schools can choose to do to close the achievement gap, or adjust to help all students succeed.”
Survey data would have provided DaVinci officials with information about the characteristics of students, Baird said.
“It had the potential of identifying areas of concern that may have been addressed by the counseling staff at the school,” he said in an email to the Standard-Examiner.
“This could decrease negative behaviors (such as bullying and prejudice) and enhance prosocial behaviors in the school that enhance social and academic development.”
Implied vs. informed consent
Kimball said one of her biggest issues with the survey is the implied consent that Baird attempted to obtain from parents to get DaVinci students to participate.
The consent letter from Baird states parents need not do anything if they want their child to take the survey but that they should sign and return the letter if they don’t want their child to take part.
“They are not allowed by law to do that (use implied consent),” said Kimball, adding the state requires parents and guardians to give informed consent, meaning they must sign a form granting permission for their children to serve as subjects in research studies.
State law prohibits schools from administering surveys to students that reveal information about the student’s family without explicit permission of parents or guardians, said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the state Office of Education.
Because the DaVinci survey results have been destroyed, she said, the school doesn’t face any sanctions. “No harm, no foul.”
DaVinci’s school board has completed an investigation into Kimball’s allegations and plans to turn its findings over to a private attorney for review to determine if any state or federal laws were broken, said Clain Udy, the school board’s president.
“We have taken the matter seriously in launching an internal investigation,” said Udy, who declined to release the results of the investigation until the board discusses the matter in August.
DaVinci strives to comply with all state and federal laws, he said.
The parental consent letter from Baird is inadequate because it doesn’t explain how the data from the survey will be used or stored, Kimball said.
In addition, the letter states that survey results will remain anonymous, but pupils who participated in the survey were required to provide their student identification numbers, she said.
Baird said student identification numbers were needed to match original survey results with those from a follow-up survey for analysis purposes.
Kimball also maintains that many of the survey questions are intrusive because they ask students to describe on a scale of zero to four their relationship with their parents and others.
“It puts emotional stress on students,” she said. “My concerns speak to the expectations of privacy.”
Georgia refused to participate in the DaVinci survey on May 21 but remained in the classroom while other students took the 50-minute assessment.
She’s glad her mother didn’t allow her to take the survey because of questions students were asked about their parents.
“I didn’t like them asking those questions,” Georgia said.
Kimball went to the school May 22 to complain to Donaldson that proper procedures were not used in administering the survey.
She said Donaldson was unaware of the types of questions on the survey and hadn’t reviewed the parental consent form sent out by Baird. Donaldson promised to investigate the matter.
Donaldson, who handles curriculum, testing and other duties at DaVinci, said a school counselor was working with Baird on the survey.
Kimball said she returned to DaVinci on May 23, when Baird and Donaldson agreed that proper informed consent should be obtained from parents before the study could proceed and that the consent letter would be revised to state that results would be confidential rather than anonymous, she said.
They also agreed that the revised letter would contain some sample questions and that parents would have sign the letter before their student could finish the survey.
However, Donaldson allowed the survey to continue on May 24, with a follow-up survey administered to students before new consent letters were distributed to parents, Kimball said.
The revised consent letter was an attempt to satisfy Kimball so that the original survey results could be used, Donaldson said.
The follow-up survey was actually a post assessment conducted by a DaVinci guidance counselor to measure student perceptions for her separate school research project, Donaldson said.
Kimball said she demanded that the questionnaires filled out by student be shredded and that Donaldson destroyed the documents at DaVinci on May 25.
She said the post-assessment results were also shredded at the same time, leading her to conclude the assessment was a follow-up to the initial survey and not a separate project.
Shredding the documents was unfortunate because it prevents a better understanding of the perspectives of teens to help them in their development, Baird said.
“Another damaging impact of the documents being shredded is that it was twisted to give the impression that the research was carried out without regard to university, professional or federal guidelines,” he said in the email.
“This stifles research considerably. In an already distrustful society, it generates more doubt in the honor and good will of researchers and educational systems who seek to understand and improve upon the human condition.”
An investigation sparked
Kimball’s concerns about the survey prompted Weber State President F. Ann Millner and other university officials to order an investigation of Kimball’s allegations.
The U.S. Department of Education also investigated Kimball’s complaint and determined there were no federal violations regarding how the survey was administered, Baird said.
Ryan L. Thomas, associate provost and dean of Undergraduate Studies at Weber State, said in a letter sent to Kimball on June 19 that a parental consent form erroneously used the term “anonymous” rather than “confidential” regarding the use of student identification numbers, but no problems were found with how the survey was administered.
“Although there was an unfortunate error in the wording of the release, which was later corrected, we found no violation of the Weber State University Institutional Review Board policies or of any state or federal laws by either Dr. Baird or the Weber State University Institutional Review Board,” Thomas wrote in the letter.
To his knowledge, Donaldson said, Kimball is the only parent to complain about the survey.
However, a parent of another DaVinci student, who asked not to be identified, also expressed concern that proper consent was not sought from parents.
“If you want to give a test to children, then you should get permission,” the parent told the Standard-Examiner.