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At a September school board meeting in Southlake, Texas, a parent named Tara Eddins strode to the lectern during the public comment period and demanded to know why the Carroll Independent School District was paying counselors “at $90K a pop” to give students lessons on suicide prevention.
“At Carroll ISD, you are actually advertising suicide,” Eddins said, arguing that many parents in the affluent suburban school system have hired tutors because the district’s counselors are too focused on mental health instead of helping students prepare for college.
“Some of these kids, they’re just trying to get through the day, get through compacted math, get through algebra, go to cotillion on Sunday,” Eddins said. “They are not thinking about these issues.”
Two days after Eddins made the remarks, Southlake Families PAC — a group that has fought to stop a diversity plan at Carroll — sent an email to supporters calling on the school district to “Leave mental health and parenting to parents.”
Christina Edmiston, a Southlake resident and mother of two, was outraged when she saw the email. Earlier that month, Edmiston had pulled her 12-year-old son out of the Carroll district after he reported thoughts of suicide after having been bullied by classmates for his sexuality.
“You can’t expect just to teach kids arithmetic and reading and look at their test scores and expect them to be decent human beings,” Edmiston said. “I personally cannot understand why a parent would not want their children to have knowledge of what depression looks like, what anxiety looks like.”
But that’s what’s now being debated in communities across the country. As school districts struggle to address accusations that administrators are indoctrinating students in progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality, the same parents and activists making the claims have begun targeting school initiatives centered on students’ mental health and emotional well-being.
In Carmel, Indiana, activists swarmed school board meetings this fall to demand that a district fire its mental health coordinator from what they said was a “dangerous, worthless” job. And in Fairfax County, Virginia, a national activist group condemned school officials for sending a survey to students that included questions like “During the past week, how often did you feel sad?”
Many of the school programs under attack fall under the umbrella of social emotional learning, or SEL, a teaching philosophy popularized in recent years that aims to help children manage their feelings and show empathy for others. Conservative groups argue that social emotional learning has become a “Trojan horse” for critical race theory, a separate academic concept that examines how systemic racism is embedded in society. They point to SEL lessons that encourage children to celebrate diversity, sometimes introducing students to conversations about race, gender and sexuality.
Activists have accused school districts of using the programs to ask children invasive questions — about their feelings, sexuality and the way race shapes their lives — as part of a ploy to “brainwash” them with liberal values and to trample parents’ rights. Groups across the country recently started circulating forms to get parents to opt their children out of surveys designed to measure whether students are struggling with their emotions or being bullied, describing the efforts as “data mining” and an invasion of privacy.
Asra Nomani, a mother and activist in Fairfax County, said she supports school curricula focused on character development and emotional well-being, but she said SEL programs have been hijacked by progressives.
“It took a turn in the summer of 2020, after the tragedy of George Floyd’s killing,” said Nomani, a leader of Parents Defending Education, an activist group that criticizes school diversity and equity efforts. After that, she said, social emotional learning “became a vehicle for this quote-unquote ‘social justice activism’ and the indoctrination of controversial ideas related to race, sexuality and even gender and identity.”
The attention to social emotional learning in particular has been further fueled by loyalists to former President Donald Trump. The Center for Renewing America, which was started by a former Trump administration official, published a glossary that claimed that teachers and counselors were embedding critical race theory into social emotional learning programs. And state GOP lawmakers who tried to stop certification of Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election in Wisconsin proposed legislation that would outlaw social emotional learning and other educational concepts that they labeled as “state-sanctioned racism.”
School leaders across the country deny that the initiatives teach children to judge themselves or classmates based on their race. Many districts, including several in Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee, say they launched new social emotional learning programs in response to rising youth suicide rates in recent years and to help children cope with bullying and other emotional issues that can inhibit students’ abilities to focus at school.
“It’s absolutely terrifying to think that our kids could be out there without the access to the things that they need,” said Amal Anthony, a parent in Carmel who runs a Facebook group supporting school diversity and inclusion efforts. “Because while we all like to think that our kids are going to come to us first, sometimes that’s not the reality.”
Although youth suicides remain relatively rare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 2,756 minors died by suicide in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, making it the second-leading cause of death among children. Early CDC data from 2020 show that the number of children who visited emergency rooms for suicide attempts increased by 31 percent compared to a year earlier, feeding concerns among parents and pediatricians that more children have struggled with depression and suicidal ideation during the pandemic.
A recent report from the student safety company Gaggle, which monitors school-issued computers and tablets, said that among students at the 1,500 schools it does business with, nearly 9,000 threats of suicide or self-harm had been flagged as so serious that they required immediate intervention by school emergency contacts in the last academic year.
But the argument that social emotional learning and other school-based mental health initiatives are part of “a new-age nanny state” has been gaining traction in conservative media for months, including on Fox News. Columns in the National Review and The Federalist have suggested that social emotional learning has become “another vehicle for anti-white racism” and may soon eclipse critical race theory as the most debated phrase in education.
Some parent groups have advanced more extreme ideas. A national activist group, No Left Turn in Education, connected social emotional learning to the potential sexual grooming of children, calling it a “dangerous” philosophy that teaches students to put their trust in educators over the instructions of their parents. The group warned that even if social emotional learning doesn’t lead to “sexual assault by an adult,” it could cause children to question their gender identity and “will likely lead to some serious mental health struggles.”
As backlash over discussions about racism causes some schools to withdraw diversity and equity efforts, educators, child welfare experts and some parents said they worry that these protests could prompt a similar pullback from mental health programming.
“I am concerned, because the people that stand to lose are the kids,” said Karen Niemi, the president of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, an organization that helps schools implement the framework. “And it does worry me that we could risk prioritizing what’s good for kids because of a misunderstanding or, potentially, social emotional learning being used for any political agenda.”
Mental health director under attack
In Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis, voters overwhelmingly approved a tax increase two years ago to hire more school resource officers and social workers. Stephanie Whiteside, the Carmel Clay School District’s first mental health coordinator, was put in charge of using the money to hire therapists based in schools, who are accessible to students with parental permission. More than 400 students have participated in therapy sessions in the last 14 months, according to the district.
Nicki McNally, a Carmel parent who helped campaign for the referendum, said she can see the new programs’ paying off in the way her teenage daughter speaks freely with her friends about panic attacks, coping methods and seeing counselors, “because they’ve been trained that that’s OK, that’s normal, and that there are resources there for that.”
But this year, as parents organized to push back against the district’s equity measures, activists made Whiteside one of their prime targets, accusing her of making “victimhood the highest social currency.”
Alvin Lui, who co-founded a group called Unify Carmel to fight the district’s diversity efforts, called the mental health coordinator’s job a “dangerous, worthless” position and circulated dossiers about Whiteside that included an analysis of posts she had liked or shared on social media that Lui said showed she held animus toward police.
Lui also criticized the district’s use of social emotional learning as “an extremely deceptive indoctrination system.” If schools want to address students’ mental health, he said, the best approach is “to involve parents if there’s an issue.”
“But focus the kids on academics,” Lui said. “Focus them on something productive and useful so that they feel competent and confident that they’re doing well in school. They shouldn’t be questioning their gender identity and worrying about marching and worrying about social justice.”
The district declined to make Whiteside available for an interview. In response to the criticism, administrators sent a letter to parents on Sept. 30 noting that she is married to a police officer and that her work in Carmel “has genuinely saved students’ lives.”
Carmel Clay Schools also defended the district’s reliance on social emotional learning programs in a statement issued by a spokeswoman, Emily Bauer. The lessons can be as straightforward as having elementary school students draw self-portraits to portray their strengths, Bauer said, or initiating group projects or discussions to help students learn how to better communicate.
The district said it completed 101 suicide screenings from the beginning of the school year through Oct. 18, more than twice as many as in the same period last year.
“This rhetoric that the mental health coordinator and mental health services are dangerous really sets us back,” McNally said. “We’re supposed to be moving forward to remove the stigma of mental health services.”
‘A lever for equity’
Some critics said they believe social emotional learning, first introduced in some schools beginning in the 1990s, has become entwined with progressive values.
Many point to CASEL, a nonprofit organization that is considered the leading authority on social emotional learning. After the protests for racial justice last year, CASEL updated language on its website to describe social emotional learning as “a lever for equity” that “affirms diverse cultures and backgrounds” and plays a role in eliminating “deep-seated inequities in the education system” — all phrases that conservatives have branded this year as critical race theory.
Niemi, CASEL’s president, said the backlash to the language around equity reflects a misunderstanding of social emotional learning, which is meant to adapt to whatever issues specific students might be struggling with, whether it’s stress, bullying or racism.
“When you’re in a classroom where racial issues are heightened, it is necessary for kids to have the skills to understand who they are, how to relate to other people, how to get along, how to solve problems,” Niemi said. “It’s not about telling them what to think or telling them how to feel.”
A survey of 2,000 parents released this year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, found that people broadly supported the ideas behind social emotional learning. However, the support dropped when surveyors used the terms “social emotional learning,” “soft skills” and “whole child development.”
SEL often involves “a lot of jargon and ideas that may sound kind of ivory tower or foreign to a lot of parents,” said Adam Tyner, who analyzed the survey for the foundation. “It doesn’t surprise me that some of those parents expect the worst.”
Some parent groups have made more radical claims about social emotional learning, echoing baseless conspiracy theories popular among followers of QAnon.
At an event at a church in Whiteland, Indiana, last month hosted by the activist group Purple for Parents Indiana, Rhonda Miller, the group’s president, said grade school lessons centered on emotions are meant to prepare children for sex trafficking by teaching them to be accepting of LGBTQ identities and introducing them to books about sex, gender and sexuality.
“The schools are too dangerous,” Miller told the audience, according to a video of the meeting posted online. “They are doing exactly what they were designed to do. They’re not broken. When you go back and you look at the history of public education, it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do, which was to take our system down from within.”
Purple for Parents has been working with a state legislator to introduce a measure that would outlaw social emotional learning in Indiana schools. The group didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Parents raise privacy concerns
In Fairfax County, Virginia, where parents have spent months protesting the district’s diversity and equity initiatives, activists affiliated with Parents Defending Education have shifted the focus of their outrage in recent months to surveys that the school system has been sending to students as part of its social emotional learning initiatives.
The activist group has raised alarm that the Northern Virginia district of 178,000 students allocated $1.8 million in federal Covid-19 emergency funds to a five-year contract with Panorama Education, a Boston-based company, to survey students districtwide about their emotional well-being. The district said the survey will help it address mental health challenges worsened by the pandemic.
The surveys, which parents can opt their children out of, ask questions like “Overall, how much do you feel like you belong at your school?” Surveys intended for middle and high school students ask about their sexuality and gender identities, information that the company says is meant to help schools identify whether certain groups of students are struggling more than others.
Panorama said the surveys — used in more than 21,000 schools across the country — are designed to help educators track students’ well-being, identify those who may be struggling and suggest interventions to help them. Although some of the surveys ask about students’ experiences with racism, Panorama said the questionnaires are “not a tool for teaching critical race theory,” adding that it “does not market, sell, or rent any student’s personal information” to any outside companies.
Fairfax County Public Schools said survey answers are accessible only to educators who are directly involved with the students who responded and aren’t shared with the state or any company other than Panorama.
But Nomani, the vice president of Parents Defending Education, said schools shouldn’t be relying on outside companies and algorithms to address students’ mental and emotional well-being. And she said she doesn’t believe it’s appropriate for schools to survey children about their sexuality.
“What we need to do is to separate the authenticity of social and emotional learning from the activist, divisive agendas of profiteer consulting groups that are basically using our children to increase their bottom line,” she said, suggesting that the money spent to hire companies like Panorama could instead be used to hire more school counselors and therapists.
‘Shame on them’
Some conservative groups have explicitly targeted school-based anti-suicide initiatives this year, particularly those aimed at helping children younger than 12, arguing that the efforts distract from academics and introduce mental health issues to children who aren’t struggling.
Utah Parents Unite, an activist group that says it’s fighting indoctrination and mask mandates in schools, urged its members to lobby against a bill to expand suicide prevention programs to elementary schools, where, the group said, “suicides are not happening.” (National data obtained by NBC News show that the number of children ages 6-12 who visited children’s hospitals for suicidal thoughts or self-harm has more than doubled since 2016.)
“It’s not age appropriate,” Utah Parents Unite wrote of suicide prevention in elementary school, “and it’s not a topic we need to introduce into the minds of young children.”
Despite the objections, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law in March.
Parent activists elsewhere have continued to make the argument, including in Southlake, a suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas that was the subject of an NBC News podcast about the community’s fight over a school diversity plan.
Neither Southlake Families PAC, which sent an email to supporters in September claiming that “social emotional learning is critical race theory,” nor Eddins, the mom who accused counselors of “promoting suicide,” were willing to be interviewed.
In response to questions about the Carroll school system’s support for social emotional learning and whether it was appropriate for school counselors to focus on anti-suicide efforts, Karen Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman, said the district “is focused on what is in the best interest of all students.”
Edmiston, the Carroll parent whose child struggled with depression after classmates teased him over his sexuality, said the district needs more counselors and programs centered on the mental well-being of students, not fewer. NBC News isn’t naming her son, because he is a victim of harassment.
“I personally cannot understand why a parent would not want their child to understand — even if their child doesn’t have any mental health issues — … what depression looks like, what anxiety looks like,” Edmiston said. “That doesn’t make sense to me, as a mom, as someone who’s a part of society.”
Edmiston said that classmates started teasing her son about his sexuality last school year after he came out as bisexual, and that by September, the harassment had escalated. Her son, a sixth-grader, said he had told a friend at school that he wanted to die. Afterward, according to her son, some of his classmates responded by grabbing a rope from gym class and stringing it over a goalpost like a noose at recess.
In an interview, Edmiston’s son said he started struggling with depression when he was 10 and has relied on therapists to cope. He said comments by parents claiming that most young children don’t need emotional support at school were “highly insolent.”
“I’ve had to have help with my mental health,” he said. “And if there’s other people who are having to struggle like me, or even worse, and a parent can’t recognize that because they think a child is younger and can’t have those feelings, then shame on them.”
As for Edmiston — starting this month, she said, she’s sending her son to a private school.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.