Tens of thousands of Edmonton students will soon be asked to answer personal questions about their gender identity, race and, for older students, sexual orientation.
Beginning in November, Edmonton Public Schools is launching a student demographic survey for students in grades 4 to 12. Questions regarding sexual orientation are for students in grade 7 to 12.
The division said responses would help inform policy decision to create more safe and welcoming spaces insides its schools and classrooms.
“Not every student feels like they belong in school and part of that is because they don’t feel their teachers really understand who they are,” said Nancy Petersen, managing director of strategic division supports for Edmonton Public Schools.
Inspired by similar surveys administered in Ontario’s public school system, Petersen said the survey is also a product of months of consultation with several stakeholders, including community members, staff and students, the latter of whom want to be asked these questions.
“They’ve just cautioned us that if we ask the questions, we better be prepared to take future actions,” Petersen said.
EPS said the survey results will be used to identify “barriers and inequities,” but at a press conference Friday officials were unable to provide specific examples of how the data might be used.
The survey questions are voluntary and EPS said students “will only respond to the questions they feel comfortable answering.”
Parents are also able to opt out of the survey on their child’s behalf, even if the child is interested in participating. Edmonton Public Schools acknowledged it had received “less than a handful” of concerns from parents regarding the survey.
“We know that for some families, they won’t feel as comfortable as others,” said Petersen.
Some comfortability has been expressed by parents to the Somali Canadian Cultural Society which estimates there are 6,000 Somali children in the Edmonton public school system.
President Jibril Ibrahim said parents believe the questions about gender identity and sexual orientation should wait until junior high school (grade 9 to 12) and may decide to opt out.
“If that is going to damage or affect negatively the data collection, then that is the unintended consequence,” Ibrahim said.
EPS officials acknowledged that because the survey is voluntary, it likely wouldn’t provide a totally accurate demographic picture.
“As you might imagine, we have pressures from multiple sides. We’re trying to go based on information we’ve gathered from other jurisdictions and ask questions we think students will answer,” said assistant superintenden Kent Pharis.
“If we find as a result of our survey that we had too many students opt out, then we’ll have to calculate and rejig,” said Pharis.
Transgender parent and inclusion professional Marni Panas said she welcomes the survey and hopes her son participates.
“Do I need to know whether he has or hasn’t? No,” she said.
“It’s one thing to ask questions and understand the makeup and demographics of students. But how will this data inform policy? How will this data ensure students are safe?”
Panas said maintaining confidentiality is the most important factor.
“That’s going to be really important actually because there are going to be things in that survey that they don’t want their parents to know.”
The survey is not anonymous, but Edmonton Public said results will be kept confidential on a secure central server accessible by only a few internal staff members, tasked with analyzing the data.
Petersen said it will be correlated with student data already collected, such as absenteeism and graduation rates, to help inform decision making in an effort to improve overall student experience and success.
Edmonton Public said each school will decide when to conduct the survey between Nov. 1 and Dec. 16.