Controversy continues to dog the school district’s plan to change school start times, as parents and some School Committee members say survey data should not be shared outside the district.

Last February the School Committee voted 3-2 to effectively flip the start times of the middle and high school with the Alden Elementary School. A survey was done in the classroom and another was sent home to parents, supposedly to set a baseline for future data collection. Superintendent of Schools Susan Skeiber has said there will be be future surveys conducted in the fall and spring to gauge how well the time change is working.

The district is working with scientists at Boston University, who will be compiling and analyzing the survey results. But there is some debate as to whether or not the data should be kept in-house or shared with the greater academic community. Additionally, some feel parents were not given a change to opt out of the survey, and therefore the first round of results should be discarded.

Skeiber told the committee that they got the connection to BU through a parent who lives in town, and works at the university. All the services provided will be donated, and none of the research will be vetted through BU’s institutional review board. All identifying information will be removed from the surveys, and the university will only be getting copies of the information. She also said that what happens to the data  is entirely up to the School Committee.

“We would determine whether that would happen. The data is our data,” she said.

School Committee Chairman George Cipolletti said that he was comfortable putting language in the agreement with Boston University saying the data would not be made public.

“I think we heard pretty clearly ... that at least some of the people in the survey were uncomfortable with it,” he said.

He said if the data reveals groundbreaking information, the issue could be revisited. However, other School Committee members felt that since parents weren’t originally told the information may be given to academic researchers –– and parents weren’t given an opportunity to opt their child out of the survey –– the data should be thrown out.

“The process was not done correctly,” said Maureen Connelly. “I think we’re opening ourselves up for a huge liability.”

Connelly pointed out that this is the first time a start time change’s effect has been studied on younger students, and said it would be likely there would be some interesting conclusions revealed in the data.

Other School Committee members stressed that the surveys were all anonymous, and that more information could only benefit the discussion of student sleep habits.

“How else can other districts make decisions if they can’t learn from other districts?” asked Karen Wong. “I don’t think anyone’s personal rights were violated ... it’s a very general survey.”

“It’s information,” added Anne Ward. “I just don’t understand why there’s so much fear around this.”

Wong pointed out that the surveys were a direct result of a perceived desire from parents to be more included in the sleep time decision.

“In the spring we were getting yelled at because we didn’t do a survey ... we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t,” she said.

Connolly said that she has a sophomore in high school and didn’t know about the survey until after her child had taken it.

“Parents should have been able to see that survey and parents should have been able to opt out their students,” she said.

Although Skeiber said parents would be given the option to op-out in any future surveys, Connolly felt strongly the data already collected was tainted – even saying the district was making itself vulnerable to a lawsuit.

“These surveys should be thrown out,” she said.

Skeiber said that the draft the Committee was reading on Wednesday night wasn’t an official agreement with BU, although the goal would be to have something binding in writing.

Bullying researchers on sleep time study?

A parent who spoke at Wednesday’s School Committee denied allegations that angry parents who spoke out against the start time change proposal “bullied” Holy Cross researcher Amy Wolfson out of working with the district on studying the sleep time change.

From the minutes of the Aug. 6, 2009, meeting of the Start Time Committee:

“Superintendent Skeiber indicated that Dr. Wolfson of the College of the Holy Cross has withdrawn her volunteer services to assist the school district due to communication she has received from Duxbury residents. Dr. Wolfson considered the communication inappropriate, disrespectful and an affront to her professionalism.”

The idea of professional sleep researchers being harassed by angry Duxbury parents did come up in the discussion of the start time change earlier this year. However, School Committee Vice Chairman John Heinstadt felt it was unfair to place this statement in the committee’s meeting minutes without vetting its truthfulness.

“That’s a little troubling when a statement like that is put in a public record without specifics,” he said, calling it a “nebulous accusation.”