Now under scrutiny, social-emotional learning once hoped to stem school violence

Reporter: Breana Ross
Published: Updated:
Social-emotional learning was once embraced after the Parkland shooting killed 17 students in 2018. But now, it’s under scrutiny by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.

A week after a gunman killed 19 kids and two teachers inside a Texas elementary school, a school safety bill sits on Gov. DeSantis’ desk.

The bill attempts to improve transparency around school emergencies.

It increases school safety officer requirements, increases youth mental health training and more. It’s an update to legislation passed back in 2018 in response to the Parkland school shooting.

This comes as state leaders continue to push back on another tool they embraced after Parkland, social-emotional learning.

“After Parkland, we saw lawmakers actually say we should be teaching social-emotional learning in the classroom, we need to make sure we’re dealing with the mental health of our students, that they are in a good space, that they are cared for, that they are loved, that they are supported,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association.

But Spar said, now in 2022, the state started to move away from social-emotional learning. But not completely, Lee, Collier and Charlotte county schools still use social-emotional learning.

But in April, the Florida Department of Education (DOE) rejected 41% of math textbooks, citing social-emotional learning content.

The DOE is expected to do the same with social studies textbooks.

“It’s like this whole hidden agenda of indoctrination, to his point that, you know, I don’t care how you feel when you’re doing the problem, just be able to solve it,” said former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

“I mean, it might have just all gotten looped in together with the kind of the CRT fallacy,” Kevin Daly, president of the Teachers Association of Lee County.

DeSantis banned critical race theory from all public schools. Critical race theory examines how racism impacts our laws and institutions.

“He has also taken the phrase social-emotional learning and somehow made it seem that it’s about race, and teaching white kids to hate each other, or to hate themselves rather,” Spar said. “That is not the case. Social-emotional learning is about making sure that kids are in the right state of mind so that they can successfully learn.”

“It’s just painful to see how political we have become in educating children,” said Lee County School Board member Gwyn Gittens.

Regardless of the reason, school psychologist Nathaniel von der Embse said he believes pushing back against social-emotional learning is a mistake.

“If we want to really promote academic success, we have to attend to the social and emotional needs of that child. I mean, it’s decades of research have supported that link, the link is absolutely clear,” said von der Embse, an associate professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida.

DeSantis’ office sent WINK News a statement saying educators should not be expected to substitute for child psychologists, counselors or other specialized mental health providers.

Teachers and their unions don’t disagree with that but they can’t erase Parkland and now Uvalde from their minds.

“How many more times are we going to have to turn on the news and there is another and another situation where there’s mental health, where there’s social-emotional issues? Who is it and when is it that we teach children how to cope in stress,” Gittens said.

Educators say with more help, like more school counselors and psychologists, schools can make more of a difference.

Florida stopped participating in a federal program that monitors youth risk behaviour in exchange for creating its own program.

That’s a decision the largest teacher union in the state and several other advocacy groups oppose.

Lee County schools said principals determine how social-emotional skills are taught in their classrooms, but the resources are evolving as the DOE amends the rules and requirements.

Collier County schools said their counselors, psychologists and teachers have created support activities for students covering topics like health relationships, coping strategies and advocating for health.

The state now requires five hours of mental health education every year for sixth to seniors in high school.

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