By Elise Marlett, Current Staff
The West Bend High Schools now have data about unsafe student behaviors, but only from 11% of the student body.
The Well Washington County coalition released a report in late October summarizing the results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered by WBHS in April. The report also contains information from other Washington County high schools, including those in Slinger, Kewaskum and Hartford. Due to low participation rates, West Bend students make up less than one fifth of the total students surveyed across the county.
The anonymous questionnaire is administered by the Department of Public Instruction to public high schools across the state and covers a wide variety of subjects regarding drug and alcohol use, sexual health, weapons and violence, mental health, nutrition, exercise and traffic safety. The DPI creates a report of the results for the entire state in odd numbered years.
In accordance with district policy, the survey is optional for West Bend students and can only be taken with the consent of a parent or legal guardian.
It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons why WBHS had such low student participation for the Youth Risk Behavior Survey because the lack of appeal can come from either the parent or the child, given the fact that parental permission is required.
Pupil Services Director Sharon Kailas helped lead the district toward taking this survey. Kailas recognizes that the relationship between the parent and the student is crucial in determining whether or not the student would take part in this survey.
“We have no idea why (parents) did not sign their kids up,” Kailas said. “The challenge is we have to get permission from parents for kids to take those kinds of surveys, so we have never had a lot of students doing it. If the kids were interested in answering it or not answering it, I wanted them to connect with their parents and make that decision together.”
Among both parents and students, there seems to be confusion regarding the anonymity of a student’s response to the questions. Many chose not to take part because they believed that the school would be able to see their responses to these difficult, personal questions.
East sophomore Emma Seymer was not given permission by her mother for this very reason.
“She thought it was an invasion of privacy and that the school shouldn’t have to know if we’ve had sex or smoked weed or anything in that sorts,” Seymer said.
“My mother thought it was an invasion of privacy.”
– Emma Seymer, East sophomore
Caitlin Marsch, an East junior, was also not granted permission to participate in the survey.
“I didn’t take the survey because my parents did not give permission to the school,” Marsch said. “However, I would not have taken it anyway, because I just feel like those are personal things the school doesn’t have to know about me, especially my mental health.”
East senior Justin Scherzer also commented on the importance of privacy and anonymity in the district.
“I think a lot of teens may be afraid it’s not completely anonymous,” Scherzer said. “I also think parents have a high value for their children’s privacy.”
Wendy Wiesjahn, a physical education teacher who worked on a committee to review and organize the survey results, agrees with Scherzer that parents value their children’s right to privacy. She believes many parents are hesitant to allow their children to take part in the survey because it is difficult to confront the reality of what the results may be.
“I think kids will take the survey but I think there’s some fear with some parents that it will be linked to their identity,” Weisjahn said. “I think some parents just don’t want to know. It may be eye-opening to some parents because I think some might put the blinders or do the ‘not my kid’ thing.”
East junior Rachel Gergetz says that whether or not the survey was anonymous, it is difficult for students to acknowledge the mistakes they have made or to come forward about the hardships they have experienced.
“One reason there was a low turnout may be because students do not want to openly admit to any ‘risk behaviors’ they’ve been participating in, even if it is anonymous,” Gergetz said. “Calling it a ‘risk behavior’ and personally acknowledging it for what it is may cause people to steer clear of this kind of survey. The raw, honest truth is that some kids have done things they probably shouldn’t have, and they don’t want to admit it.”
Amanda Wisth, the interim director and health officer of the Public Health Department in both Washington County and Ozaukee County, has a different take on why West Bend had particularly low participation among its high school student body.
“It could be that it hasn’t been done there (so it’s new), it could be promotions, it could be multiple factors,” Wisth said. “It’s really at the school level on how they get students involved in surveys.”
In terms of publicity, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey was advertised to students during mandatory resource time in the video announcements. Per the request of Kailas, West student Andrew Haese, who has since graduated, created a promotional commercial for the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in Michael Bentdahl’s capstone class to be included in the announcements. However, this resource advertisement still left some students unaware that the survey was taking place.
“I was never offered to take it, I don’t know if I was absent when they offered it or what,” Scherzer said. “I would’ve taken it if I had the option.”
“I think a lot of teens may be afraid it’s not completely anonymous.”
– Justin Scherzer, East senior
Many individuals were unaware that the survey was taking place because this is the very first year that West Bend has taken part in administering it to high school students. Compared to neighboring high schools, WBHS is behind. Kewaskum High School has been administering the survey for at least four years. Pewaukee High School has been doing it for five years. North Sheboygan High School says they have been giving the survey to their high school students for at least 10 years or longer. West Bend’s lack of prior participation in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey over the years perhaps affected the percentage of students who decided to take part in the survey.
Though the high schools had a small percentage of students who took the survey, Wisth says that what matters most is the overall county numbers.
“Knowing how big (the WBHS) student body is, it’s low for the amount of students,” Wisth said. “But if we are looking at it on an aggregate level this is actually a good representation when you look at it countywide.”
There are many different ways that students think the survey can be made more appealing in the future. Gergetz thinks that students who received permission to take the survey should take it during mandatory resource. This would be more practical for those who are busy during resource throughout the rest of the week and cannot spare a day to take the survey.
“More students may be more willing to participate in the survey if it is more accessible and easy to do,” Gergetz said. “It was a relatively simple survey, but the whole process was a little taxing. You had to use one of your Flexi resource periods to go to a computer lab and do a 15-minute survey. I use Flexi every day to do something for a class or get help in a class I’m struggling in.”
West sophomore Lauren Oppermann thinks that presenting statistics to students will prove the survey’s importance, increasing student participation in future years. She thinks that more publicity will also be effective in increasing the number of students taking the survey.
“I think there could be more advertisement for it, but also more statistics could be presented to show students how important the results are,” Oppermann said. “The school could also provide reasoning for why they have this survey and what those results would be put towards.”
(This article is part of an ongoing series of stories about the 2018 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.)