Missouri AG to investigate Missouri school districts over invasive student surveys, and the harvesting of the results

Probing personal surveys discovered in at least one Missouri school district ask young students about their racial and gender identities, as well as their political preferences and views on such issues as gay marriage, abortion and birth control.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt says his office will investigate possible privacy violations by the survey-takers, and whether the private companies involved are profiting from the information illegally.

Parents in the Webster Groves School District near St. Louis say the surveys contain questions the school is not legally allowed to ask. The Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) approached Schmitt’s office on behalf of the parents.

“We appreciate the Southeastern Legal Foundation for bringing their concerns to the office, and have received similar allegations in districts across the state,” Schmitt’s spokesman Chris Nuelle said in an email. The other districts were not named, though a news report said Springfield Public Schools also was a customer of the survey company, Panorama.

The surveys at Webster Groves include probing questions about racial and gender identity. One question asks, “Which of the following most closely describes you?” Possible answers are:

  • Boy/Man
  • Girl/Woman
  • Transgender
  • Non-binary
  • My gender identity is not listed her

In a section called “My identity journal,” second-graders are asked to identify their race and answer a question about when they noticed other people could be a different race. In one survey, a student wrote “now.”

The surveys also include questions about topics such as gay marriage, immigration, abortion, school prayer and the death penalty. Students are asked to declare their political preference and their “views on government funding of Planned Parenthood, abortion, and health insurance coverage for birth control.”

Observers say surveys such as these are finding their way into schools at a staggering rate, harvesting deeply personal and legally protected information in the process.

Even more alarming, many of the surveys are created and administered by third parties that have clear political ties and motivations, not to mention access to the students’ personal information.

SLF says the surveys in the Webster Groves district were outsourced to two companies, Panorama and Project Wayfinder. Notably, Panorama was co-founded by the son-in-law of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has been criticized for weaponizing the DOJ against parents at school board meetings.

Panorama, which says it is dedicated to “dismantling systemic racism” and “spreading anti-racist practices,” also happens to sell solutions to address the problems raised by its surveys. Last October, the company was surveying at least 1,500 school districts in 21 states, according to Forbes.

Braden H. Boucek, director of litigation for SLF and a former federal prosecutor, expressed serious concern about schools offering politically-driven companies free rein to harvest personal data from students. He warned of the potential for abuse, and called for these surveys to be brought into the light.

“We have no idea what these companies are doing with the data that they compile about America’s children and their parents. We hope for a full and transparent investigation into these grave allegations and betrayals of parental trust,” Boucek said.

SLF maintains it’s illegal to obtain much of the information collected in these surveys.

“Both federal and state privacy laws prohibit schools from asking students about many of these topics at all or without parental consent, including (1) political affiliations or beliefs of the students or the students’ parents, (2) mental or psychological problems of the students or the students’ families, and (3) sex behavior or attitudes,” the organization writes.

Missouri law allows for the attorney general to investigate such alleged violations. SLF argues that if a district is found to be in violation, civil fines of up to $10,000 for repeated violations are in order.

According to the statement from the AG’s office, multiple districts will be under investigation.

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