DENVER — Colorado has been asking middle and high school students about their sex lives and drug use for nearly a quarter of a century in anonymous public health surveys.
But the surveys are under new scrutiny from parents who call them invasive and inappropriate.
The state Board of Education plans to debate next month whether to require parental permission before kids fill out the questionnaires. A bill pending in the state Legislature would do the same.
The surveys are used to chart childhood risk factors, such as smoking, drinking and bringing guns to school. Public health officials say the surveys are the foundation of what is known about dangerous behaviors, such as whether kids are smoking more pot now that the drug is legal for adults.
"Ideally we're basing public policy on evidence, and it's hard to do evidence-based policy without evidence," said Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver.
Earlier this month, Aguilar opposed a GOP bill called the Parent's Bill of Rights because she feared the additional parental screening could reduce survey returns. "Students do them knowing they're anonymous and can be honest," Aguilar said.
The Colorado Department of Education says the youth-risk surveys are sent every other year to randomly selected middle and high school students. The last survey, given in 2013, was given to 40,000 youths in 220 schools. The surveys have been done since 1991.
Current law allows school districts to decline participation or to require parental permission. But parental permission isn't required by state law. Colorado's marijuana taxes now pay for the surveys.
Some board members said Friday that it's wrong to ask minors about sex and drugs without consulting their parents first. "I just think it's inappropriate to ask school children about these questions," Pam Mazanec said. "It is repulsive to me."
The board got an opinion from the attorney general's office concluding that prior written parental consent should be required before minors participate in the surveys.
"If most parents actually had an opportunity to take a look at that survey, they wouldn't want to be a part of it," said Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, who is sponsoring the legislative attempt to require parental permission before the surveys are given.
But the parental-permission requirement has some parents' groups upset. Among them is Smart Colorado, a parents' group formed to prevent youth access to marijuana. "There's a lot of information we frankly don't have," Smart Colorado's Henny Lasley said.
The state Health Department hasn't taken a position on the surveys. But a doctors' panel assembled by the department to gauge marijuana's health effects called last month for more research into marijuana use patterns.
"The data available at this time cannot answer all of the important questions about whether or not marijuana use patterns are changing as a result of legalization," the physicians concluded in the Jan. 30 report. For example, the surveys ask only about marijuana use, not how the drug is consumed — smoked or eaten or perhaps concentrated into oil or wax.
The doctors also bemoaned "conflicting data on adolescent marijuana use in Colorado."
Survey critics insist they don't oppose gathering data. But they said it shouldn't be done without written parental permission and only after parents have had a chance to review the questions.
"It strikes me as exploitive to children," Mazanec said.
Senate Bill 77: http://bit.ly/1zN4Rns
About Colorado's youth health surveys: http://bit.ly/1ACNGJh
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt