June 14, 2022

Student health surveys—such as the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBSS)—monitor health behaviors, including substance use, violence, mental health, and sexual behaviors, among middle and high school youth. Student surveys support data-driven decisions to improve the health and safety of all students, including LGBTQ+ youth who experience substantial health inequities.

Historically, a minority of parents have expressed concerns that student survey questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity were too personal as well as irrelevant to academics. Recently, some parents—including groups in Colorado, North Carolina and Florida—question if schools should participate in health surveys at all.

Students cannot learn if they are not physically and emotionally healthy. Student health surveys give communities valuable information and are particularly important in supporting underserved populations. For example, when 19 YRBSS high schools added a gender identity question in 2017, they found that transgender youth experienced increased violence, substance use, and suicide risk.1 The data allowed advocates to build a stronger case for strategic programming.

When student surveys ask about sexual orientation and gender identity, they can help LGBTQ+ students feel acknowledged, by demonstrating to them that their community cares about their physical and emotional health.

To support the well-being of all youth, public health professionals can do the following regarding student health surveys:

  • Share the benefits. Provide examples of how schools and communities have used past survey data to identify priorities, apply for grants, and support youth well-being, particularly for youth in marginalized populations. 
  • Acknowledge parents’ concerns. Offer facts to respond to their concerns. Provide information on positive outcomes from past surveys, including those which have led to programs, policies, and practices to improve health among youth populations facing disproportionate risks.
  • Be transparent. Provide clear information on the purpose, procedures, and intended use of survey data. Assure parents of safeguards on student and family privacy, particularly as some parents of LGBTQ+ youth may worry that their child will be identified through the survey data. Give parents the chance to view surveys and decline their child’s participation. Remind them that their child can skip questions that they don’t wish to answer.
  • Engage parents. Share survey findings with parents, inviting them to provide their perspectives. Parents’ perceptions of school climate and policy can provide context to interpret student data. Sharing data with parents and the community can show parents of LGBTQ+ youth that their children are being recognized and supported.

Public health relies heavily on data to drive its efforts. It has a responsibility to voice a science-based perspective on the value of student surveys and collecting data on student populations who may need supports. Without a strong, united response on the value of these surveys, we risk losing essential information to protect the health of all young people.

Kristen Quinlan, PhD, is a senior research scientist at EDC who specializes in leading applied research focused on preventing suicide, substance misuse, and injury and violence.

Shari Kessel Schneider, MSPH, is a senior project director at EDC with expertise in adolescent health and school health. She works to advance knowledge of effective programs and practices to improve the physical and mental well-being of youth.

Julie Ebin, EdM, is a senior technical advisor at EDC specializing in behavioral health, state suicide prevention infrastructure, strategic planning, urban youth, and LGBTQ concerns. She is a former co-chair of EDC’s LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group.

1Johns, M. M., Lowry, R., Andrzejewski, J., Barrios, L. C., Demissie, Z., McManus, T., Rasberry, C. N., Robin, L., & Underwood, J. M. (2019, January 25). Transgender identity and experiences of violence victimization, substance use, suicide risk, and sexual risk behaviors among high school students — 19 states and large urban school districts, 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(3), 67–71. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6803a3


Behavioral, Physical, and Mental Health

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