Durango Herald: Healthy Kids survey results invaluable | Opinion

The every-other-year Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which for years has provided crucial insights into middle-…

The every-other-year Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which for years has provided crucial insights into middle- and high-schoolers’ physical, mental, social and behavioral health, has been in conservatives’ cross hairs before. Now the anonymous, voluntary survey is even more politicized.

Students are asked about sexual activity, consent, drug and alcohol use, suicide, weapons, bullying, gender identity and more. Subjects some parents don’t want brought up at school. In late May, the survey even made its way into the debate between U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and state Sen. Don Coram in Ignacio, when Boebert called him out for his vote in 2017 to fund HKCS. As if this were a bad thing.

HKCS offers the best, solid data we have to respond to the needs of our children. Anecdotes are one thing; real numbers are something else entirely. And real numbers are needed to craft policies, apply for grants, secure funding and launch critical youth services. Parents know, our kids don’t tell us everything. Survey results indicate what students are struggling with, such as poor mental health. HKCS did just that.

In 2019, HKCS data showed mental health figures were off the charts. They’ve been particularly helpful in understanding the significant increase in Colorado’s teen suicide rate. Nearly 35% of high school students experienced symptoms of clinical depression since 2017. Data also indicated more students reporting suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. This was enough for agencies to pivot, get at the heart of what was going on and provide stigma-free resources. If this isn’t a selling point for the survey, we don’t know what is.

Fund mental health programs say lawmakers opposing gun-safety measures. HKCS is one first step.

In the most recent HKCS, new questions are related to COVID-19, violence and safety, stress and resilience, and connectedness. The questions that really rattle some parents, though, are those on sex and consent, and include the following:

* During the past 12 months, has a revealing or sexual photo or video of you been texted, e-mailed or posted electronically without your permission?

* Have you ever touched, grabbed or pinched someone in a sexual way when they did not want you to?

* Have you ever had sexual intercourse?

There’s broad agreement that middle-schoolers are way too young to engage in sex. The sad news is that some actually are. And if they are, would we want to know about it and address it?

Parents and students can opt out of the survey or skip questions. Districts can opt out, too, or remove sections.

But in the hearts and minds of critics, opting out isn’t enough. They don’t want the choice to talk about it at all. This is the crux of the controversy. Whether parents believe talking about subjects such as drugs and sex will prevent – or encourage – behaviors. Where does the harm come from? In the talking about it or not talking about it? Some parents say talking about drugs and sex builds trust with children. Others say it’s morally confusing. The line in the sand is between the two.

We strongly side with health experts. “Research shows asking young people on a survey does not influence their health behavior,” said Emily Fine, school and youth survey manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Gender identity questions have been in the survey for years. Yet, they’re getting new attention. Accusations of “grooming” have been thrown around. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, grooming is used by sexual predators to gain access to potential victims and coerce them. This word has no business here.

Yes, sixth-graders – 11 or 12 years old – answering questions about sex is uncomfortable. Worse is knowing middle-schoolers are texting nudes. We value the survey’s results. It gives us information to take directions toward better health.

Durango Herald editorial board