The controversial federally funded Youth Behavior Risk Survey for 2023, which was about to get underway in Duval County Public Schools, has been canceled at the urging of the state Department of Education.

Local parents had already complained about the survey, which they said asked young students inappropriate questions about sex and other topics.

The district received a letter Friday from Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr. expressing "grave concerns" that, despite the state withdrawing from the survey program last year, the Duval district was to continue it in 2023 under the last year of a contract with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parents can opt their children out from taking the survey.

Broward, Hillsborough, Pasco, Orange and Palm Beach counties have similar CDC contracts. Whether they received corresponding letters was not known Friday.

Diaz wrote that such an "inflammatory and sexualized survey is not in the best interests of Florida students."

"The CDC asks leading questions … that may actually introduce risky behaviors to students, prompting them to engage in potentially detrimental activities," Diaz wrote in the letter.

Department of Health involvement

The district also received notice Friday that the Florida Department of Health-Duval was terminating its contract with Duval County Public Schools for providing data collection and evaluation related to the survey. The Health Department letter did not give a reason for the termination.

Given these two developments, Superintendent Diana Greene decided not to conduct the 2023 survey.

"Since 2009, the YRBS [survey] has been used to provide the district and health partners with extensive data about the experiences of our students and the services they need," she said. "We know we are serving multiple students as young as middle school who are already moms and dads. Even though this survey is going away, we will do our best to remain attentive to the experiences and behaviors of our students and continue to work with other community partners to address their needs."

Diaz wrote that an Education Department work group is developing a "Florida-specific youth survey … designed to safely collect information and better serve students." The new survey is to be administered this spring; using the CDC one would be "duplicative and unnecessary," he wrote.

"The primary focus of your district should be to educate children using standards-aligned instruction and to assist Florida students in avoiding risky behaviors instead of exposing them to sexually explicit concepts," Diaz wrote. "Instead of asking your students highly controversial and extremely personal questions ... you should refocus your efforts on teaching and learning. Any actions that deviate from protecting the health, safety and welfare of Florida students are unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

'Wildly inappropriate questions'

Members of Moms for Liberty-Duval, a parental rights group, was among those complaining about the survey at a Duval School Board meeting Tuesday. Chapter chairwoman Rebecca Nathanson told the Times-Union Friday that the CDC-developed survey asks "wildly inappropriate questions of our children."

Such questions include when they had sex for the first time, at what age and how many times they have had sex. The group asked that "questions of a sexual or gender-identity nature" be removed from the survey.

"It is our position that our public school district should comply with the spirit and intent of the Federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, which acknowledges that questions of such a personal nature should never be asked of minors without their parents' affirmative consent," Nathanson said. "That is why we have requested that the district require a parental opt-in, rather than the assumed permission with an option to opt out."

"It is troublesome to us that because these surveys are anonymous, any student who answers that they are suicidal or victims of rape will not receive any support from school counseling services," she said. "These surveys could easily trigger a post-traumatic stress response in a survey subject, and no one at school would be able to help them."

JASMYN and differing opinions

In response to opponents speaking out at the board meeting, JASMYN, a Jacksonville nonprofit that helps LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, issued a "call to action" asking supporters to give different opinions at the March 7 board meeting.

"There is currently a strong attack against continuing the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in our Duval schools," CEO Cindy Watson said. "This important survey provides critical health and wellness data regarding our youth, including our only reliable local data on LGBTQ youth in schools."

"Many community organizations, including JASMYN, use this data to inform and guide policy, programs and services — all directed at keeping our teens healthy and safe," she said. "These local efforts protect students from sexual abuse, physical injury, drugs and alcohol and suicide."

Watson asked supporters to send messages to Duval School Board members "to insist questions around sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual behavior are included" in the survey.

"As safe space is disappearing from these young people's lives, so is their opportunity to be themselves in the place where they spend the majority of each weekday, school," she said. "This is another step in trying to erase them."

Elissa Barr, a professor of public health at the University of North Florida, said the survey questions are "developmentally and age-appropriate." The information gleaned from the survey, she said, "affects our entire community, well beyond just the schools."

"Parents have the right to opt out their own children, but they should not have the right to cancel it for everyone," Barr said. "Students are able to share their stories anonymously.  As adults we should listen to them and use this information to meet them where they are, not silence them."