Mission Creep: Schools as Mental Health Providers

Header for the Fairfax County Public Schools request for proposal

by James A. Bacon

Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system, the state’s largest, is aggressively taking on a new role — mental health provider — under the rubric of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

As monitors of children’s mental health, teachers and  school administrators will do double duty as social counselors and psychologists.

That expansive new mission is made clear in the controversy surrounding FCPS’s June signing of a $1.8 million contract with Panorama Education, a Boston-based data analytics firm, to provide a “universal screener for social and emotional learning.”

Through the Freedom of Information Act,  Parents Defending Education, acquired the contract and the Request for Proposal upon which it was based.

“FCPS is committed to provide social and emotional learning for all students across all of their classrooms throughout the school day,” states the “background” section of the RFP. “Currently, schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities throughout the U.S. As a result, it is essential that school staff are able to appropriately and proactively identify social-emotional barriers to students’ ability to access the academic curriculum.” (My bold)

Parents Defending Education, which arose in reaction to the spread of “woke” ideology in public schools, has drawn attention to sample survey questions that will be used to assess students’ “social emotional” status, including their responses to issues of race and gender. Responses from the social emotional “screening” will be used to help identify the need for “intervention” by the school. (Access the documents and see the group’s spin on them here.)

Given the track record of the Fairfax school system, there is every reason to worry that the data collected from the surveys will be used to advance a social-justice agenda. But other than the sample questions highlighted by Parents Defending Education, I could not find much explicit evidence in the RFP for that. The big story here is the evolution of schools from institutions that teach into institutions that address students’ mental health — a case of monumental mission creep.

Bacon’s Rebellion columnist Jim Sherlock was the first to draw attention to Social Emotional Learning in a public forum. He posted a series of articles based on Virginia Department of Education documents that evoked very little comment at the time, and disappeared like a stone through water. I will confess, I did not fully appreciate the significance of SEL at the time. Now that we’re getting a clearer idea of how SEL is being implemented at the school district level, those articles deserve a closer look.

Social Emotional Learning — We’re All Along for the Ride (March 5, 2021)

VDOE Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Standards to Use Schools to Create New Leftists (April 30, 2021)

No One in Virginia Schools Is Licensed to Practice Social Emotional Learning May 22, 2021)

Social Emotional Learning is not some abstract concept emanating from educational theorists disconnected from the real world. It is being implemented now, with Fairfax County in the lead. The RFP provides more background:

FCPS is a catalyst that transforms our community’s most valuable resource, our children, helping to guide a thriving future for all our students and families. FCPS strives to inspire and empower our students to meet high academic standards, lead healthy and ethical lives, and be responsible and innovative global citizens. …

FCPS is committed to providing social and emotional learning for all students across all of their classrooms throughout the school day. Currently, schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities throughout the U.S. As a result, it is essential that school staff are able to appropriately and proactively identify social-emotional barriers to students’ ability to access the academic curriculum.

Research shows that when schools embed SEL into the school day with fidelity, it improves children’s lives, the culture of the school, and teacher well-being. Schools report increased academic success, enriched relationships between teachers and students, and decreases in aggression. Students’ mental health improves, and they are more likely to become caring family members, innovative workers, ethical leaders, and engaged citizens. A universal screener for social and emotional learning enables school staff to proactively identify and address the social and emotional needs of their students, which can help promote these positive outcomes.

What could possibly go wrong?

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8 responses to “Mission Creep: Schools as Mental Health Providers”

  1. The Virginia Board of Education is developing guidelines for social emotional learning (SEL) based on a statutory mandate. See Virginia Code Section 22.1-17.7, available at https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title22.1/chapter2/section22.1-17.7

    Expect to see more of this kind of activity in every school district in Virginia.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Many schools already do this type of work. They notice when kids show up in winter without jackets or don’t have money for lunch or have teeth that need attention, and whether they are being bullied or having their lunch money stolen.

    All of this happens right now in most schools.

    Social media has added new issues.

    And most folks know WHY they need School Resource Officers.

    We like to think that most parents take proper care of their kids as well as know what is going on in their lives when away from home.

    That’s not always so, Schools are often the place where abuse of the child is found out and/or they need medical care – both physical and mental.

    What do these folks want to change?

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Of course, there is already social and emotional learning in schools. The kids spend 6-7 hours a day there. It is inevitable that much of their social and emotional “learning” would take place there. I would say that the emotional well-being and the ability to get along with others of all of us was shaped in the schools to a large extent. There has been a steady increase in the number of counselors each school is required to have. There have been anti-bullying programs. So, there is nothing really new here. I just don’t like the additional labeling that the educrats love to indulge in.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      A teacher is often the first person to see that a child is not socializing well or mixing well with other kids or is the subject of bullying from other kids – much more so than the parents in many cases.

      It’s silly, even ignorant for parents to disavow that teachers DO play this role.

      This is part and parcel of this anti-public education campaign that is ongoing right now.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Wouldn’t have to do it if there were anyone else.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    I remember a few years back Loudoun schools saw a spike in teen suicides. The school board answer was to assign a school psychologist to every high school. Might include middle and elementary. I can’t remember that part. At Briar Woods HS the school psychologist seemed to be a good resource and eased the burden of guidance counselors, who were usually dealing with mental and emotional health of students. I thought it was a good use of resources. SEL just smells like flavor of the month. I don’t see a universal mental health band aid going very far. It seems like cover for something else.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I would say, if nothing else, that Conservatives are a suspicious lot these days especially about govt and institutions, technology, science, climate , you name it! 😉

  6. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    Sounds like we may expect some good Libs of Tik Tok videos coming soon from NOVA.

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