Florida faced a crisis after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
A key to preventing another murderous attack, many argued, was to better identify children’s mental health needs and provide services before any problems grew out of control.
The Republican-led state government poured resources into those efforts, passing laws intended to “reduce the likelihood of at-risk students developing social, emotional, or behavioral health problems, depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal tendencies, or substance use disorders.” School districts complied, submitting detailed plans to bring social-emotional learning into classrooms.
Four years later, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies repeatedly contend that a child’s social-emotional development is a responsibility that rests with parents, not educators.
The Florida Department of Education recently rejected more than 50 math textbooks in part because they contained elements of social-emotional learning. And it threatened to do the same for the coming round of social studies books, warning publishers to keep their pages free of “unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination.”
In addition, the state ended its participation in a federal program that monitors youth risk behaviors. Florida instead plans to go it alone with its own program — a decision opposed by more than three dozen advocacy groups.
As Floridians reflected on last week’s shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, some wondered if the government’s move away from these concepts is a step in the wrong direction.
“We’re going completely backward,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who’s been a vocal DeSantis critic. “These are all decisions that create risk, and not allow us to provide supports to children who need supports.”
The 18-year-old gunman who attacked Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, was a high school senior who reportedly had trouble finding friends and getting along with classmates.
Empathy, relationship and goals
Social-emotional learning involves teaching kids life skills that go beyond traditional book learning — for example, how to show empathy, maintain relationships and set goals.
Asked how the DeSantis administration’s recent stance on social-emotional learning jibes with school safety and security needs, the Governor’s Office focused on the initiatives it said he has backed.
“Florida has invested and will continue to invest in school safety and mental health initiatives for students as the health, safety and welfare of Florida’s 2.9 million students is the utmost priority,” education department spokesperson Cassie Palelis said via email.
She listed actions such as funding for school guards, support for hardening schools, and systems for emergency alerts and anonymous reporting of threats. She also noted legislation requiring added training on youth mental health issues, more money for mental health assistance in schools and first lady Casey DeSantis’ Hope for Healing initiative on mental health and substance abuse.
“The work of ensuring school safety is never complete,” Palelis wrote. “We must continue our efforts and evaluate the processes currently in place to provide all students with access to safe and secure learning environments.”
More students are feeling sad or hopeless almost every day, said Norín Dollard, director of Florida KIDS COUNT, an initiative that tracks child well-being. Dollard led an effort this past week to urge the state to resume its participation in the risk behaviors program.
The Texas school shooting, she said, highlights why Florida needs to have risk behavior data, which is collected from surveys of young people and used in deciding where to deploy services.
To address problems, “these are things that people need to know about their community and their school,” she said.
State officials have stressed they intend to keep gathering the information, just not with the federal program.
Collecting data is good but not enough
Collecting behavior data alone is not enough, said University of South Florida associate professor of school psychology Nathaniel von der Embse.
“It’s incredibly important that mental health and the emotional skills that we are teaching students not be separate from the core mission and vision of the school system,” said von der Embse, who’s also co-director of the USF/University of Wisconsin School Mental Health Collaborative.
He praised Florida leaders for putting more money into mental health services since Parkland, and for requiring evidence-based practices. But he questioned the shift against social-emotional learning, which conservative groups like Moms for Liberty have branded as part of a “woke” political agenda infiltrating schools.
Von der Embse said the core tenets of social-emotional learning have decades of research behind them showing they bolster academic success.
“Have we forgotten the issues of Nikolas Cruz?” he asked, referring to the Parkland shooter whose sentencing hearing is ongoing in Broward County. “It is not enough to simply have warning signs. We need direct service delivery. Schools have to prioritize this.”
Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis said it’s a “must” that schools meet students’ non-academic needs to help them make good decisions and become a “better self.”
“For us, it’s about creating the right mind-set for students, one that students, when they walk into the room, they feel comfortable and confident enough not only to attack content, but facilitate the learning every single day and be exemplars for those around them and for themselves,” Davis said.
Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said that, despite touting the need for added mental health supports after Parkland, state government has not backed the effort fully.
“We have fortified our schools. We have armed guards in our schools. We do active shooter drills, which by the way put a mental strain on our kids,” Spar said. “What goes through a kid’s mind when they say, ‘We’ve got to do a drill,’ and then they see it happen?”
The state hasn’t provided funding to place a psychologist in every school to serve students in crisis, he said, or a social worker in every school to connect families to services. The ratio of guidance counselors to students remains much lower than recommended, he added.
Too often, Spar said, providing social services falls to busy classroom teachers, where it does not belong.
“We have got to not fall for the political theater, and focus on the issues that matter,” he said.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.