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Education

Missouri attorney general subpoenas school districts over student experience surveys

In this Aug. 6, 2020, file photo, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference in St. Louis.
Jeff Roberson
/
Associated Press
In this Aug. 6, 2020, file photo, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference in St. Louis.

Eric Schmitt’s investigation appears to stem from a request his office received from a Georgia-based conservative nonprofit, which has recently turned its focus to Missouri schools. Park Hill and Lee's Summit are among the school districts facing subpoenas.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced Wednesday that he’s issued subpoenas to seven school districts across the state as part of his ongoing investigation into school districts’ curriculum and practices.

Schmitt, who is running in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, said in a news release that the subpoenas target student surveys that his office characterized as asking “personal and otherwise unnecessary questions” on topics like political views, sexuality and race.

Schmitt’s investigation appears to stem from a request his office received from the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative national legal nonprofit that has recently turned its focus to Missouri schools.

According to a copy of the subpoena sent to the Jefferson City School District, the attorney general’s office believes an investigation is necessary to determine whether the district violated Missouri and federal laws regarding student data and privacy.

The subpoena gives the district 10 days to produce documents in response to 22 demands. The requests ask for documents on how the district obtains parental consent prior to students answering surveys related to political beliefs, mental health issues, religious practices, income and more. It also seeks contracts on third-party vendors the district employs, internal documents on how survey responses are analyzed and who gains access to personal student info.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, did not clarify whether the investigation was launched at the urging of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, and said, “if more information is submitted to our office about additional schools employing these surveys, we will consider further subpoenas.”

In a statement, Kimberly Hermann, Southeastern Legal Foundation’s general counsel, credited Schmitt’s actions as being “in direct response to our request for investigation.”

“On behalf of our brave parent clients, we look forward to seeing invasive student surveys come to an end,” Hermann said.

The seven districts facing subpoenas include Mehlville, Webster Groves, Jefferson City, Lee’s Summit, Park Hill, Springfield and Neosho, according to the attorney general’s office.

The office also said a civil investigative demand was sent to Educational Equity Consultants, a St. Louis-based firm that has worked with school districts for over two decades to explore “how our own attitudes about race and racism might be limiting students’ capability to achieve,” according to its website.

A spokeswoman for the Lee’s Summit School District said the district is reviewing the subpoena. It uses Panorama Education, an education technology company, to solicit students’ input “to incorporate student voice in our approach to supporting student’s needs, particularly when it comes to feeling a sense of belonging and connection at school.”

According to sample surveys on the district’s website, questions center on students’ experiences in school, such as, “When complicated ideas are discussed in class, how sure are you that you can understand them?” and “How fairly do adults at your school treat people from different races, ethnicities, or cultures?”

Panorama Education notes on its website it does not “market, sell, or rent any student’s personal information” and only uses the data for the purposes of serving schools. It also stresses it is not a tool for teaching critical race theory, an academic concept intended to acknowledge how racial disparities are embedded in U.S. history and society which has been a focus of conservative lawmakers.

Stephen Hall, a spokesman for Springfield Public Schools, said the district “will always comply with the law” and said districts are incurring significant legal fees while “Missouri taxpayers are incurring the cost of the attorney general’s actions.”

A spokeswoman for the Mehlville School District said the district could not share any details on the subpoena or the district’s response until advised by its attorneys. Other district representatives and Educational Equity Consultants could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a May 1 letter, the Southeastern Legal Foundation — a Georgia-based nonprofit that says on its website it files lawsuits to advocate “for limited government, individual liberties, and the free enterprise system”— urged Schmitt to launch an investigation into the surveys on behalf of Webster Groves School District parents.

The 23-page letter detailed examples of various surveys and assignments students were asked to take for classes that touched on topics like their political ideologies, stress levels, mental health, gender identity, struggles as an LGBTQ student and experiences as students of color.

Based on screenshots included in the letter, it appears some of the surveys were created by students, whereas others the foundation said were administered by third party companies, like Panorama Education and Project Wayfinder.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation argued in its letter that the surveys violate student privacy laws, aren’t anonymous and that parents were not asked for their consent to have their children participate. It urged for Schmitt to launch an investigation and pledged to support the facilitation of one.

“The actions and statements of these companies give rise to the suspicions of parents that (social-emotional learning) is really just thinly disguised political indoctrination, and they cannot reliably be counted upon to protect student data,” the letter signed by the foundation’s general counsel and director of litigation read.

A little over a week later on May 10, Schmitt posted on Twitter about opening investigations into districts employing the surveys, writing, “The madness has to stop”

The Southeastern Legal Foundation has launched a guidebook advising parents on their rights in their childrens’ schools and represented two Springfield Public School employees in a federal lawsuit filed last August arguing mandatory racial equity training violated the employees First Amendment rights.

In April, the foundation also sued the Missouri School Boards’ Association arguing it violated Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

Both cases are ongoing.

The foundation was also involved in a lawsuit against St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner involving records sought by a journalist considered an ally by former Gov. Eric Greitens.

Schmitt has made investigating school curriculum, mask policies and school boards a central tenent of his campaign for U.S. Senate. Wednesday’s subpoenas are the latest legal actions in his recently launched “Students First Initiative,” which has solicited parents to submit information and concerns regarding their children’s curriculum.

Schmitt has also sent open records requests to nearly 50 school districts, seeking lists of textbook titles, communications with the Missouri School Boards Association and records related to diversity and equity trainings and contracts.

On a “transparency portal” Schmitt’s office posted examples of some of the materials, assignments and trainings the office has received so far, with many touching on topics like privilege and oppression.

Schmitt’s investigations into curriculum echo his office’s legal blitz against school mask mandates, in which over 40 parents that emailed a tip line set up by his office later became plaintiffs in his lawsuits against school mask policies.

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Updated: June 8, 2022 at 4:26 PM CDT
This story has been updated since it was first published to include additional comments.
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