March 11, 2010 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
D.C. schools get incomplete score on LGBT youth survey

Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro Teen AIDS, said flawed data in the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey will hinder his group’s work with local youth. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

A survey of risky behavior by D.C. youth, including LGBT youth, was so flawed that its data cannot be weighted, hindering local groups as they work to help gay students and fight HIV.

Leaders of two groups that provide services to LGBT youth told a D.C. City Council hearing March 5 that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, known as OSSE, failed to ensure a required 60 percent response rate for the survey among city middle and high school students.

That failure, the group leaders said, led federal officials to declare D.C. data for the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey nothing more than a snapshot of student behavior rather than an indicator of trends.

Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, and Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro Teen AIDS, said the loss would adversely impact their groups’ ability to assess the needs of LGBT youth.

“This gap in data presents a tremendous loss to SMYAL and the LGBTQ youth of D.C.,” Barnett told Council Chair Vincent Gray (D-At Large), who presided over the hearing. “We rely on the [survey results] to understand the scope of problems facing youth living in D.C.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which created and funds the survey, said the CDC conducts a national version of the survey by sampling about 15,000 high school students in schools throughout the country.

Karen Hunter, the spokesperson, said the CDC also arranges for states, counties and cities to conduct their own version of the survey using a set of “core” questions established by the CDC as well as additional questions deemed important by local jurisdictions.

At the recommendation of a coalition of local community groups, including LGBT organizations, D.C. school officials agreed to add a question to the 2007 survey that gave student respondents an opportunity to disclose whether they were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

In response to a recommendation of the same coalition, OSSE agreed to add another question for the 2009 survey enabling respondents to disclose whether they are transgender. The LGBT questions are expected to be part of all future surveys.

“This was incredibly important,” said David Mariner, executive director of the D.C. LGBT Community Center.

Mariner said that identifying LGBT participants in the survey enables the community to assess the problems LGBT youth face and develop ways to address those problems.

Among the core topics included in the survey questionnaire that seek to identify “health-risk behaviors among youth” are: unintentional injuries and violence, tobacco use, alcohol and other drug use, sexual behavior, unhealthy dietary behavior and mental health issues.

Mariner and Tenner said the lack of sufficient data from D.C. students in the 2009 survey creates a four-year gap in assessing the needs of local LGBT youth because the results of the next survey, set for 2011, won’t be processed and released until 2012.

Chad Colby, an OSSE spokesperson, said that although the office is in charge of coordinating the youth survey, it is administered by the city’s public school system. Colby did not know why school officials didn’t arrange for more students to take the survey. A school spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.

Colby noted that the survey was “in the field” before OSSE’s new director, Kerri Briggs, was appointed to her post as the city’s State Superintendent of Education last year.

A fact sheet he released about OSSE’s views on the survey also says that the survey is not legally mandated. “Therefore, school districts are not legally required to complete the survey,” says the fact sheet.

Colby said the lack of a 60 percent return of the survey questionnaires means the data cannot be “weighted,” precluding it from being compared against data from other cities and states. He noted that the data can still be used for some purposes.

“We’re still going to be reporting it as un-weighted data,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we won’t be able to use the data to make the case for grant funding. It just means you won’t be able to compare it to other states and districts.”

But Hunter said that un-weighted data only “provides a snapshot of what’s going on among the students that were surveyed.”

She said the data cannot be used to extrapolate the behavior of the entire student population. Only “weighted data,” which is obtained from a response rate of 60 percent or greater, can be used to assess the behavior of the larger population group, she said.

Tenner said CDC officials told him the D.C. survey response rate was 36 percent for high school students and 54 percent for middle school students.

“Many of us use the Youth Risk Behavior Survey for our programs and our grants,” Tenner said in an e-mail to local activists. “From a city-wide perspective, many of us were excited to use YRBS data to objectively measure the city’s effort to improve the health of its youth and to highlight the challenges that remain.”

He called on OSSE to present a written plan on how the agency will ensure that the 2011 survey is properly implemented “with adequate student and school participation.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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