CHEYENNE — The Wyoming House killed an amendment last week that would’ve brought the Equality State back into a national survey that asks middle and high schoolers questions about their health and behavior.
The state is one of only four that don’t participate in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which asks middle and high school students to answer 49 and 89 questions, respectively. The data is then used to identify trends and inform public health decisions on a local, state and national level. The Legislature opted the state out in 2016.
Opponents of the amendment expressed concern about the questions, several of which ask about students’ sexual history, whether they’ve been sexually assaulted and whether they use contraceptives. But it also asked questions about suicide, depression, tobacco use and bullying, according to the 2019 questionnaire on the CDC’s website, all of which Wyoming youth have struggled with in recent years.
“Members, two years ago we defunded this program and for good reason,” said Rep Scott Clem, a Gillette Republican. “In fact, I’ve got pictures on my phone here with some of the questions. I’m not going to read those questions because I think it’s very distasteful, and yet that’s what we’re exposing our high schoolers and middle schoolers to.”
“After I was given the questions, I’m not sure we want these questions being asked,” added Cheyenne Republican Rep. Landon Brown, who initially co-sponsored the amendment with Jackson Democratic Rep. Mike Yin, among others.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Laramie Democrat, stood up after Clem and said that she would read the questions. She recited the queries about contraceptives, number of partners, and if and when a student first had sex.
“I read you the most salacious,” she said. “This is information that we in this state have used again for decades in order to plan programs, in order to use our prevention money well.”
She added that the problems the survey attempted to get at “were not going away.”
In an email, Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti said data from the survey had previously helped the department’s programs on obesity prevention; tobacco control among youth; injury prevention, including suicide, seat belt use and bullying; and sexual health education efforts.
The state has struggled with all of those issues. In Natrona County alone, tobacco use tied to e-cigarette use has skyrocketed. Suicide statewide has jumped, though Deti previously cautioned that the small sample size can cause fluctuations. Gonorrhea rates have also spiked in recent years; in 2017, the group with the third-highest rate of growth were youth in their mid-to-late teens. State health officials said in 2018 that teens had seen a marked increase in sexually transmitted infections.
What’s more, Wyoming has been dinged in national health reports for its high rate of death in younger residents.
“An example of how things change and where timely information could be useful is the increase of vaping among youth over the last few years,” Deti said.
An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the questionnaire should be re-instated. The department collects the information and reports it to the CDC. It has not used “the information to create policy or develop programs.”
The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated.