Birds, Bees, and Sodomy?
When Cherron Reeves's 12-year-old twins shoved permission slips in her face as they were running off to school one day in September, the mother of four didn't think much of it. It was the beginning of the school year, and this permission form would be the first of dozens to come. "Nine times out of ten, you just sign it," Reeves says. "I mean, it's coming from the school. You don't think it's going to be derogatory or negative."
The parental consent form, printed on University of Minnesota letterhead, requested the participation of the 65 seventh-graders from Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in a research study conducted by the school, the university, and something called Village Social Services. The purpose of the study, it went on, was to learn more about feelings, behaviors, and problems facing young people.
An attached letter offered the option of reviewing the study, and Reeves decided she needed to see the survey for herself before allowing her preteen twins to be a part of it. "I was thoroughly appalled at what I was reading," she recalls of the study. "For a child, it was inconceivable."
Many of the queries in the 63-question survey focused on perceptions of violence, school connectedness, and self-worth. But the point of contention for Reeves was questions regarding sexual experiences, such as Have you ever done or thought of any of the following? Had oral sex (mouth on penis or vagina)? Had anal sex (penis in the butt)?.
The survey also poses this question to 11- and 12-year-olds: How old were you when you had sex (penis in the vagina) for the first time? (There is a space to answer "never had sex.")
Along with the graphic sexual questions, the sweeping assumptions that the school's children already were engaging in risky behaviors incited a call for action from parents and the community. "I'm not naive," Reeves says emphatically. "I don't talk to my kids about the birds and the bees. We talk about penis and vagina. But I know my kids aren't having sex. And I damn sure know they don't know anything about oral and anal sex."
After the University research team came under fire, it quickly made plans to make amends with the neighborhood. At a meeting with north-side organizations, health care providers, and community leaders on October 14, Michael Resnick, professor of pediatrics at the U of M and the director of Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center (the University organization behind the study), admitted he made a major misstep. Before receiving final approval from the Minneapolis School District, Resnick allowed eight eighth-grade Nellie Stone students to take the pilot test after the students turned in consent forms.
Late last school year, Resnick received permission to proceed with the study from an interim superintendent, but he did not receive final approval to conduct the survey from the Minneapolis School District's research and evaluation committee. "Part of this was an issue of transition of leadership," Resnick says. "And that was wrong. In fact, I should have waited, even in the pilot-testing phase, until we had final approval from the district." Resnick says the pilot test was given only to determine how long the survey would take and if students understood the questionnaire.
Even so, those surveys have since been shredded, and the research organization is creating a new survey from scratch.
On October 4, Nellie Stone Johnson Principal Larry Burgess sent home a letter informing parents the study had been halted and the survey had not been administered to any of the students. Reeves and others dispute this.
"Mr. Burgess has not been totally honest with the community or the parents," Reeves says. "Someone needs to be held accountable. Had me and some other parents not said anything about it, this research study would still be going on."
Resnick contends that the researchers are not conducting a blind study using the school's students as guinea pigs. He says the survey is an evaluation of Partners in Action for Teen Health, a health-education program at the school designed to prevent high-risk behaviors by encouraging youth involvement and leadership. Yet, in another glaring example of the organization's poor communication within the Northside community, the permission slip refers to the survey as a "research study" a number of times. Nowhere is it stated that this would be an evaluation of a program already in place. Resnick chalks it all up to semantics. "I call it an evaluation study," Resnick says. "The university calls it research."
Evelyn Eubanks, a longtime north Minneapolis activist and critic of the public school system, feels like the University and Nellie Stone Johnson Community School have betrayed the trust of the community. "We're so busy identifying kids at risk that inadvertently we're putting them at risk," she says. There is suspicion whenever researchers study minority groups, especially children. "What happens when you expect less?" Eubanks continues. "This survey is oppressive."
Eubanks and Reeves also are angered that the research group offered movie tickets for every student returning a permission slip and a pizza party for the class that returned the most. Resnick says offering an incentive or reward is standard research procedure, and that every student who returned the consent form, whether it was affirmative or negative, received tickets. He also says arrangements were made to send out multilingual consent forms to the parents of immigrant students.
Another issue of major concern for the parents and community leaders is that the survey questions don't differentiate between thinking about the act and engaging in the act, ensuring the group will receive lots of "yes" answers to questions. "It was not a pure test," Eubanks says. "The questions are tilted." And Eubanks and others are skeptical about the researchers' ultimate goals: "Do they just want to identify a number of at-risk kids so they can get more money? What are they going to do with this information? It doesn't make sense."
As a community health researcher for more than 25 years, Resnick says these suspicions are nothing new. But he also admits that this time, inappropriate questions, miscommunication, and lack of trust led to problems. In a school where 98 percent of the students are of color, the research team did little in the way of involving community members and forming relationships with them.
Resnick does offer a mea culpa, though he wants to move forward with the research. He says this time the group won't act without first getting approval from everyone involved, including those in the community. "I made a mistake," Resnick says. "And that's why I'm saying this time, I want you to help me get it right."
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