Parent Leaders Demand Halt to DESSA, DOE’s Social Emotional Screener Amid Privacy, Security, and Transparency Concerns

New York City Parents Union
Queens Parents United
SAFEST South Asian Fund for Education Scholarship Training


The NYC Department of Education has begun rolling out ‘social-emotional screening’ known as DESSA (Devereux Student Strengths Assessment) to students. Some families have received letters from principals about the invasive, non-academic 40+ question survey that school staff will be required to fill out about children on mental-health related issues. Screenings have been mandated for all K-12 students in the coming weeks, to be completed by December 4. While somey letters include the information on how parents can opt out their child, some do not. Worse, many parents have not received the notice at all. It is also unclear if non-English speaking families received the notices about the screening with the opt-out disclaimer in versions of the notice in their own language.

According to Chalkbeat, over the next two weeks, teachers and school staff will be asked to answer a series of 40+ questions on a range of topics related to their students’ social and emotional health and behavior. This week, the teacher’s union (UFT) negotiated terms of teacher’s time towards the screener. They agreed that teachers will spend 4-hours to complete screeners for a class of up to 34 students. That comes down to just 7-8 mins to subjectively answer 43 questions for each student. Questions on the K-8 test include:

“During the last 4 weeks, how often did the child:

  • Follow the advice of a trusted adult?
  • Say good things about the future?”
  • Show the ability to decide between right and wrong?
  • Do you get along with different types of people?”

While the DOE has said the DESSA survey is for social-emotional screening, the questions appear to be partially assessing mental health. Are teachers qualified to make this type of assessment that would normally be performed by pediatric behavioral psychologists or social workers? Does it make sense to require teachers who are already burdened with addressing wide learning losses in the classroom to take time out for this? What additional services might be provided based on the results of the screening? How well does the school staff performing the screening know the student – are they well versed in cultural differences between the student and staff to make qualified assessments? Are school staff being properly trained to give the screenings or just being directed to watch a few videos? Parents are rightfully asking how the data will be collected, analyzed, stored and used. Parents want to know: what is the expected outcome of such a massive data collection of students’ personal information?  Will the parents be informed about the results? How can parents access the results? If their children need additional support, how will they be informed, and when will they receive it?  

ApertureEd, a small South Carolina company, was awarded the $18 million dollar contract by the DOE for providing the DESSA screener with limited and inadequate FAQ’s. The DOE experienced a data breach this year that showed the vulnerability of its systems. How will this company protect this sensitive private information? Does the small business have the capability to safely store the sensitive and private data of minors? These are among the privacy and data concerns detailed in this parent blog. Parents should have the answers BEFORE the survey is administered. 

Maud Maron, Vice-President of PLACE NYC and former president of CEC2, says that “the Department of Education should extend the opt-out deadline until every parent has been informed of their rights to opt-out of this survey. The DOE must immediately communicate to parents of New York City public school students the reason for this survey and how the answers will be used. The DOE must also answer questions related to data storage and security. 

Yiatin Chu, an education advocate in the Chinese community and Co-President of PLACE NYC, has grave concerns about the lack of understanding or even notice to non-English speaking parents.”Even though the DESSA letter was translated into Chinese at my school (a dual language Mandarin school), that was not the case for most Chinese families across the city. Given the subjective, personal and permanent nature of the screener, I feel parents should give explicit consent, and not just opt out.”

Mazeda Uddin, CEO and founder of South Asian Fund for Education, Scholarship and Training (SAFEST), says that “although DOE provides a Bengali translated version of the DESSA letter on its official website, the letter failed to reach the hands of our non-English speaking parents with no internet access.  Our parents have no clue that personal information is being collected on their children and how this information will be used.  Our ELL families deserve the same attention from DOE to keep them informed and give our students the same social and emotional support they need.”      

Jean Hahn, a parent advocate and co-founder of Queens Parents United, strongly urges the DOE to pause the screenings until families have been given more information in multiple translations to review, and be provided with more transparency on how, why, and what the screenings will do with clear instructions on how to opt-out, or better yet, provide the screenings only as opt-in. This is yet again, another example of top-down DOE policies rammed through without proper communication or adequate notice breeds distrust between government and the families it serves.

Mona Davids, founder of the New York City Parents Union said, “Here we go again.  The New York City Department of Education’s continued efforts to mine student data and circumvent parental rights continues with DESSA.  There is profit in student data collection.  Clearly education bureaucrats in New York City and Albany did not learn anything after parents stopped them from violating students’ privacy with our 2013 inBloom lawsuit and parents successfully changing the law in 2014 banning the New York State Education Department and New York City Department of Education from collecting and sharing our children’s information with inBloom without our permission.  We stopped inBloom and we will stop DESSA.”