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Even as the 2019 Student Health and Risk Prevention survey is being administered statewide in Utah public schools, the Utah State Board of Education has its eye on improving the next survey to be conducted in 2021.

SALT LAKE CITY — Even as the 2019 Student Health and Risk Prevention survey is being administered statewide in Utah public schools, the Utah State Board of Education has its eye on improving the next survey to be conducted in 2021.

Late last week, the board reviewed the current year’s SHARP survey, which is being administered to students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12 in most public schools in Utah every other year. Most students take the survey during February and March.

The SHARP survey is designed to assess adolescent substance use, anti-social behavior as well as risk and protective factors that can predict problem behaviors in youths. The findings help educators and other government agencies track trends, plan programs and deploy resources.

School participation is voluntary and parents must give consent for their child to take the survey. Every school district in Utah takes part, except Beaver School District. The survey is also administered in public charter schools. Statewide, 97 percent of Utah students take part, officials said. One district plans to survey all students in grades 6-12 this year.

This year’s survey for secondary schools asks students to identify their gender by what best describes them: woman/girl; man/boy; transgender or other.

It also asks them to identify their sexual orientation with four options: "heterosexual (straight); gay or lesbian; bisexual; not sure/other."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said the governor's Suicide Prevention Task Force, of which she is a member, asked for the questions on gender and sexual orientation but made no recommendation how the questions should be framed.

Some board members raised concerns about the personal nature of other survey questions, such as asking whether people in a student’s family often insult or yell at one other or if the student has contemplated or attempted suicide.

Board member Jennie Earl said letters sent to parents or guardians asking their permission for their child to take the survey should recommend that they conduct a “debrief” with their child afterward.

“Even though it’s anonymous and we keep thinking that makes it OK, you’re looking at all that information and disclosing it in some way, you’re still giving that out. There needs to be that element of dialogue that takes place, preferably with an adult, with a parent, so the child can say 'I didn’t understand this or that,'” she said.

Board member Carol Lear said she had no qualms with the questions or process. “It is adequately addressed by the parent’s ability to opt out if there is a concern,” she said.

Rhett Larsen, substance abuse prevention and intervention specialist for the State School Board, said the survey is anonymous and confidential. It allows students to skip any question they do not wish to answer.

Craig PoVey, prevention administrator in the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said parental permission forms direct them to a link so they can review the survey.

“A parent has the right to know what it is,” PoVey said.

Other board members questioned the validity of the survey given that some students who take standardized tests simply fill in circles without attempting to offer correct answers.

PoVey said the survey was developed by the University of Washington but it is unique to Utah. It has been conducted every two years since 2003.

Questions are regularly updated to gather information about emerging health risks such as the use of e-cigarettes or recreational use of opioid prescription drugs.

Moreover, it has controls to determine whether respondents are providing accurate and honest information.

If a student reports that they used drugs or alcohol in quantities that would be fatal or they took drugs that don’t exist, their survey is thrown out because it is considered unreliable, PoVey said.

Utah’s survey is unique in the respect that has questions about religiosity. One question asks if a student regularly attends religious services. Another asks if they have been bullied because of their religion and another asks if they have a religious preference.

When asked why Utah’s SHARP survey asks about religion, PoVey replied, “Religiosity is shown to be a protective factor.”

“It doesn’t matter which religion, by the way,” he said.

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Dickson the state school has supported the administration of the SHARP survey in a cooperative effort with the Utah Department of Health and Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

“Our office actually does use some of the prevention information that is gathered to then determine how we adjust our programs that are statutory in nature,” Dickson said.

Prior to the SHARP survey, three different surveys were administered in Utah schools: the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the Prevention Needs Assessment and the Youth Tobacco Survey.

The three evolved into the biennial SHARP survey, Larsen said.