By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Parents of Tallmadge seventh-graders who took a confidential survey last month have received apology letters because the district didn't ask for their consent in advance.
Tallmadge Superintendent Jeffrey Ferguson wrote the letters after some parents complained they hadn't received an ''opt-out'' letter before the survey was given Jan 26.
The Summit County Educational Service Center, which provides curricular, administrative and teacher training to local districts, prepared the countywide survey with assistance from Ohio State University.
The survey asked Summit County's seventh-graders to describe how they feel about their schools, their academic abilities, their relationships and themselves.
County education officials hope the results will give them a better idea of what mental health and other social services are needed in the county's 17 school districts.
Summit ESC Superintendent Linda Fuline said she sent a model letter to each district, which could be personalized and mailed to parents beforehand, explaining the survey and how to ''opt out'' if they didn't want their children to take it.
She said she was unaware of any other district that didn't send the letter.
''I dropped the ball, and the letter did not go out,'' Ferguson said.
One of the parents who complained in Tallmadge read about the survey in the Akron Beacon Journal before it was administered and told her daughter not to take it.
''I had told her, 'If this comes, you're to fake sick and not take it,' '' Juanita Witte said.
She said her daughter told her when the test came she didn't feel it was voluntary.
''It's my understanding of it that they were given this like this needs to be done,'' Witte said. ''Then when she started reading through it, she's like, 'Oh, I'm not doing this,' '' Witte said.
She said her daughter pretended to fill out the questions when she felt they were getting too personal.
Some of the questions focused on how much students agree with such statements as ''I am happy to be at my school,'' and ''I am confident in my reading abilities in school'' and ''My teachers have high academic expectations for me.''
The survey also included three questions about sex, a few about alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use, and a few about suicide and other mental-health issues.
''She said she pretended like she filled out a couple of them and took her time and pretended she was doing it,'' Witte said.
Five students in that class didn't have time to complete the survey and were told to mark their surveys in a way they could identify the next day and complete it.
Witte's daughter called her about the survey that day, and her mother went to the school the next day.
Her daughter identified her incomplete survey in the principal's office.
''Therefore, we were able to get hers and shred it,'' Witte said. ''But none of the other parents had that option.''
Ferguson said the girl's teacher was trying to help the students who needed more time by using the personal marks, but conceded that it was improper procedure.
He said the teachers should have understood the survey was voluntary and confidential.
''I can't speak for every student, but I would tell you that these teachers, when the principal talked to them, that they did make it clear that it was a choice and they didn't have to do it,'' Ferguson said.
Two classes that still hadn't taken the survey didn't have to once the district realized consent letters hadn't been mailed to parents.
That's about 30 to 40 students out of Tallmadge's 220 seventh-graders.
Fuline said the results of the survey will provide countywide statistics about the concerns of Summit's 6,744 seventh-graders. Agencies then use that data to better meet their needs.
''If . . . we want to go out and write grants for this stuff, the information that we've gathered from the research is going to help support that,'' Fuline said.
Ferguson said in his apology letter that parental consent letters should have been mailed and that ''procedural steps have been taken to make sure this does not happen in the future.''