Colorado budget proposal cuts teen survey on sex, drugs

DENVER — Colorado schoolchildren may not be asked about their drug use and sex habits in anonymous surveys anymore, under a bipartisan budget proposal moving through the Legislature.

The budget draft introduced Monday cuts about $745,000 to end the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.

The youth-risk surveys are sent every other year to randomly selected middle and high school students and are used to chart risk behaviors such as smoking, drinking and bringing guns to school. The anonymous surveys have been done since 1991.

The survey has long rankled conservatives, who consider the questions an invasion of student privacy.

Some also question Colorado’s ability to keep the results anonymous, though survey administrators insist they don’t track students and have never had a security breach.

“The range of questions being asked of students I believed was inappropriate,” said Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg, one of the Legislature’s main budget-writers. Lundberg cited questions about suicide as being needlessly intrusive.

The high school students were asked in 2016, “During the past 12 months, did you make a plan about how you would attempt suicide?”

The question was followed by a question about how many times the child attempted suicide in the last year, which struck Lundberg as inappropriate.

“As I parent, I look at this and think, I wouldn’t want that entire range of questions posed,” he said.

The draft budget isn’t final, so the survey funding could be restored through ongoing negotiations. And there’s a chance Colorado could seek federal money to continue it.

But state health officials say the survey’s future is very much uncertain without state support.

“Scaling back (the survey) would make it nearly impossible to look at the health of subgroups of students such as by age, grade, and race/ethnicity,” said David Brendsel of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, which runs the survey in conjunction with the Education Department.

Democrats in the Legislature oppose the cut, saying policy makers need to know as much as possible about risky youthful behaviors.

“This survey is the best way to take the temperature of what’s going on with our kids,” Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer said. “Without this, we’re flying blind with our tax dollars.”

But it’s not clear how hard Democrats will fight to restore the survey funding. Lawmakers have to trim hundreds of millions from Colorado’s $27 billion overall budget — including a massive proposed hit of about $500 million to hospitals — so it’s uncertain whether the survey will attract much attention as lawmakers hammer out the details over the next couple of weeks.

Colorado has a Republican Senate and Democratic House, forcing bipartisan agreement on spending priorities.

Youth advocacy groups that both favor and oppose marijuana legalization hope the survey can be saved. The survey is frequently pointed to as evidence that youth pot use hasn’t gone up since legalization, though children’s perception of pot’s dangers have dipped, possibly foretelling higher use in the future.

“We rely on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey to provide vital information about the impacts that the sale of Colorado’s highly potent marijuana has on youths’ health and well-being,” said Henny Lasley, head of Smart Colorado, which aims to protect kids from marijuana’s harms.

Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt

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