Mental health curriculum is the latest target in Miami-Dade schools
Miami Herald | By Sommer Brugal | March 23, 2023
Invoking Florida’s new parents’ rights law, the Miami-Dade School Board is embarking on a review of how students learn about managing their emotions, collaborating with others and developing their identities — a move that comes as the number of students experiencing mental health concerns has significantly increased in recent years.
The proposal by new board member Monica Colucci, which the board adopted last week in a 7-0 vote with Steve Gallon and Roberto Alonso absent, sets out to determine if any social emotional learning materials violate the Parents’ Bill of Rights that gives parents the “fundamental right” to direct the upbringing, education and care of their child.
Colucci, whom DeSantis endorsed in the August primary, contends students are learning about “sensitive topics,” such as depression, suicide and physical and sexual assault, without discussion or supervision.
Her proposal came a week after Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. singled out the same curriculum — Edgenuity/Imagine Learning Purpose Prep social emotional learning — in a memo sent to Florida superintendents. After thanking the Miami-Dade County School Board for making the department aware of the curriculum’s content, Diaz said it “upon preliminary review, appears contrary to Florida law.”
Diaz provided no examples of the problematic materials, yet he implored the state’s school districts “to conduct a thorough review to ensure all content is compliant with Florida law” and said the curriculum’s “divisive and discriminatory content branded as ‘social emotional learning’ has no place in Florida’s classrooms,” according to the email sent to superintendents.
Social emotional learning is a decades-old concept that focuses on a child’s development and well-being, but in recent years has been referred to by conservatives as a Trojan horse for teaching concepts they deem to be inappropriate for school-aged children.
DOTRES PUSHES BACK
During the board meeting last Wednesday, Superintendent Jose Dotres pushed back on that. After parents’ rights groups who attended the meeting claimed social emotional learning was another way to teach about gender ideology and critical race theory, Dotres asserted the district was “focusing on mental health.”
“The terminology of critical race theory has nothing to do with social emotional learning. It’s not in there,” he said. “We do not have CRT in our curriculum and I really have to put that on the record.”
Diaz’s Feb. 27 letter followed a directive from the Florida Department of Education that instructed the state’s school districts to submit their materials related to diversity, equity and inclusion programs including sex education, culturally relevant teaching and social-emotional learning, among others. The materials were due the same day Diaz sent his letter.
Miami-Dade schools produced a list of dozens of book titles and materials in response. But at the board meeting last week, Dotres said staff has been reviewing how they teach SEL to determine what should be removed or replaced. The curriculum, he reminded board members, was selected prior to new laws regulating what is considered appropriate in schools.
Last year, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education law — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics — which prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and requires lessons on the topics to be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” in higher grades.
This year, a number of bills have been introduced to build on that law. Among other things, the efforts would bar educators and school staff from referring to students with pronouns that differ from those assigned at birth, give the state more control over sexual education instructional materials, and would bar lessons about gender and sexual orientation through middle school.
CLAIMS OF NO SUPERVISION
In 2019, the state Board of Education required districts provide at least five hours of mental health education for students grades six through 12.
Districts had little time to adopt a curriculum, according to staff, and at the time, teachers expressed concern about their ability to teach or provide mental health lessons, which was why the video option was pursued. Since then, students have engaged with the lessons for about one hour monthly in their Language Arts class. Teachers are present, but students complete the modules independently, according to staff.
Nevertheless, Colucci, an elementary school teacher in the district for 26 years who took a break and worked for Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez from February 2019 to August 2020, raised concerns about students viewing these materials on their own.
“You have topics that are extremely sensitive being presented to children as young as 11 years old without any guidance,” Colucci, who taught at Everglades K-8 Center, said at the March 8 board workshop. “We have to be resourceful and we have to find a way to better address these issues for these children.”
Her proposal calls on district staff to explore alternative methods to meet the state’s requirement other than “unguided individually watched videos by students.”
Unlike Diaz’s letter, Colucci’s proposal did not indicate the curriculum potentially violated state law, but instead directed staff to ensure lessons were in compliance.
Colucci did not respond to an inquiry asking whether she spoke with Diaz or his office regarding the curriculum before proposing her item, nor did she offer a definition of SEL or concerns she had with the concept.
Diaz also did not specify what lessons were considered problematic when asked by the Herald.
Instead, after a news conference on March 14 announcing the second annual Spring 2023 Florida Space Art Contest for K-5 Students, he said, “the team is going through and looking at state law and state board rules. This was brought to our attention by Miami-Dade School Board members.”
GOP WANTS TO FURTHER RESTRICT SEX, GENDER LESSONS
The focus on social emotional learning — which has existed in schools since at least the 1990s — comes as laws about what should or shouldn’t be taught in schools continues to be central to the state’s legislative sessions.
Last year, the Florida Department of Education issued a framework for the 2022-23 social studies textbooks indicating that SEL lessons “are considered extraneous, unsolicited strategies prohibited in the specifications for the texts and are not part of the subject-area standards.” The prohibition included “identity and identity identification concepts, managing emotion, developing relationships and social awareness.”
This year, lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills that target the use of pronouns and further restrict lessons on sex and gender for K-12 schools. At the higher education level, DeSantis and Republicans are targeting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and what they consider to be “woke ideology.”
Nevertheless, Miami-Dade School Board members agreed local curriculum and policy must adhere to state law.
For her part, board member Lucia Baez-Geller supported the review of the curriculum and urged the district to be transparent.
“When we are moving information in and out, I think for everyone it’s important to see what’s being removed and what’s being replaced,” she said.