Briefly Stated: January 18, 2023

January 17, 2023 8 min read
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Social Media Ventures Sued by Seattle District to Recoup Health Toll

If the strategy worked for e-cigarettes, why not for social media?

Taking that page out of the legal annals, the Seattle school district is suing the companies that own TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Snap, claiming their social media platforms are a major force driving the deterioration in students’ social, emotional, and mental health.

As the primary provider of mental health services for its students, the district says it has had to shoulder the burden of this growing mental health crisis, including hiring additional personnel. The district says social media companies have designed addictive products that hook young users to keep them scrolling and swiping.

Previously, school districts leveraged the courts to collect damages from manufacturers of e-cigarettes to recover the costs of counseling, treatment, and prevention programs for teenagers.

For their part, the companies say they have taken many steps to protect and support children and teens on their platforms.

During the pandemic, the time children and teenagers spent on social media exploded, according to Common Sense Media. Eight to 12 year olds now spend about five and a half hours a day, and teenagers, more than eight and a half hours.

Even though social media use has been linked to anxiety and depression, among other psychological ailments, a lot of other factors contribute to the sorry state of kids’ mental health at the moment, said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists. For example, she cites the pandemic and remote learning.

At the same time, social media—even its use in school—can have benefits, said Jeffrey Carpenter, a professor of education at Elon University. It’s a venue for adolescents and teenagers to connect with new communities and perspectives and a source of informal learning about topics that students are not taught in school.

Social media is not going away, he said, so it’s important that schools teach students how to use it responsibly. “At the same time, it’s a lot to ask schools to be in charge of fixing or preventing all of the real problems wrought by social media,” Carpenter said.

Federal Pandemic-Relief Funds Drive Down Student-to-Counselor Ratio—Ever So Slightly

The infusion of federal pandemic-relief funding into schools has made a dent in the student-to-counselor ratio—a very little dent.

It’s dropped to 408 students per counselor, the best ratio on record in more than three decades, according to a recent analysis by the American School Counselor Association, from 415 in the 2020-21 school year. What the ASCA recommends is 250 students per counselor.

The pandemic and the mental health crisis among youth left in its wake has strained school-based mental health support staff, such as counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers.

“School counselors continue to serve large numbers of students, many of whom have increasing mental health needs, while being assigned duties inappropriate to the school counselor role, such as coordinating 504 plans and statewide testing programs,” said Jill Cook, the ASCA’s executive director.

An Education Week analysis found that in 2020-21—the first full school year of the pandemic—only 14 percent of districts met the recommended ratio of students to school counselors. Nearly 40 percent of all districts didn’t have a single school psychologist—affecting 5.4 million students.

EdWeek’s analysis also found significant racial disparities. Districts in which three-quarters or more of the student population was white were more likely to meet the ideal ratios recommended by the ASCA and the National Association of School Psychologists.

Despite the extra federal money, hiring counselors is a challenge because of labor shortages and high demand for their services. A survey by the Institute of Education Sciences found that in the lead-up to the 2022-23 school year, 40 percent of schools found or expected to find it “very difficult” to fill mental health positions, and 37 percent said the same when it came to filling academic counselor positions.

The ratio is significantly worse for elementary and middle schools than for high schools. In grades K-8, the average ratio ranges from 613-to-1 to 787-to-1. In grades 9-12, the ratio ranges from 205 to 243 students per counselor.

The Chilling Effect of Book Bans and Challenges: School Libraries Shy Away From Acquisitions

It’s not just what they’re removing from library shelves; it’s what’s not going on them.

The chilling effect of book bans and challenges across the country may be changing the makeup of entire school libraries. That’s according to research that in 2022 analyzed hundreds of titles from more than 6,600 public school libraries across the country.

With the recent increase in book banning, districts where books are challenged are shying away from acquiring newly published books that deal with controversial topics, particularly those about LGBTQ characters and issues.

Kirsten Slungaard Mumma, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, assembled data on the availability of hundreds of titles to examine patterns in the types and number of books schools have and are buying by scraping libraries’ databases.

The study found that schools in districts that were subject to a book challenge in the 2021-22 school year were 55 percent less likely to have acquired one of the 65 books about LGBTQ characters published between June and August 2022.

“If it’s true that book challenges are affecting the types of books that school libraries are considering for their collections,” Slungaard Mumma said, “that could have much bigger effects than whether a specific title was pulled from the library shelf.”

The number of challenged titles also matters, she found. Each new book challenged reduced the probability that a district would buy a new one about LGBTQ characters by 4 percent.

Book challenges often did not take place in the most conservative areas but happened more often in those that just leaned Republican, the analysis found. Books were also challenged more frequently in states that had laws restricting lessons on race or LGBTQ lessons and in areas with conservative groups.

Conservative areas are defined in the study as counties that voted for President Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, and liberal areas were defined as those that voted for President Joe Biden.

School libraries in conservative areas generally have fewer books overall and lower acquisition rates than libraries in liberal areas, which might also explain differences in access to books with controversial content.

Judge: Trans Girl Athletes Can’t Compete in W.Va.

The new year hasn’t rung in much support for transgender rights in schools. In the second defeat in a week, a federal district judge has upheld a West Virginia law that bars transgender athletes from competing in girls’ school sports in the state.

The Jan. 5 ruling by Judge Joseph R. Goodwin is an about-face from his 2021 decision blocking the law at a preliminary stage, permitting a then-11-year-old transgender girl to compete in girls’ cross country and track.

In his 2021 decision, Goodwin said Becky Pepper-Jackson was being excluded from school athletics “on the basis of sex” in likely violation of the equal-protection clause of the Constitution and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

But his new decision this month held that it was “constitutionally permissible” for the West Virginia legislature to limit participation in school and college sports to classifications based on “biological sex.”

West Virginia “is permitted to legislate sports rules on this basis because sex, and the physical characteristics that flow from it, are substantially related to athletic performance and fairness in sports,” the judge said.

Goodwin rejected Pepper-Jackson’s arguments that the availability of puberty blockers used in the gender-transition process put transgender girls in the same legal definition as cisgender girls.

The judge suggested the legislature had provided a “solution in search of a problem” since no transgender girl had sought to participate in female sports in the state before it passed the law. But there was insufficient evidence that the body had acted with animus toward transgender people in passing the law, he said.

The West Virginia decision comes barely a week after a federal appeals court upheld a Florida district’s policy of separating restrooms by “biological sex” and barring transgender students from using facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Court Sides With Teacher Rebuked for ‘MAGA’ Hat

In a case brimming with symbols of tensions about the nation’s divisions over politics and racial equity, a federal appeals court has upheld the right of a teacher to bring his “Make America Great Again” hat to racial-bias and cultural-sensitivity training sessions.

In the court’s view, a school principal who discouraged him from bringing the hat bearing the slogan, which many people see as racist code, likely violated the teacher’s free speech rights.

“Next time I see you with that hat, you need to have your union rep,” Caroline Garrett, the principal of Wy’east Middle School in Vancouver, Wash., told 6th grade science teacher Eric Dodge in 2019, according to court papers.

“Principal Garrett went beyond criticizing Dodge’s political views,” a unanimous three-judge panel said late last month. “She suggested that disciplinary action could occur if she saw Dodge with his hat again by referencing the need for union representation. … It is hardly controversial that threatening a subordinate’s employment if they do not stop engaging in protected speech is reasonably likely to deter that person from speaking.”

The panel suggested that a case involving a teacher wearing a MAGA hat in the classroom would raise other legal considerations.

Court papers say Dodge arrived for the training session wearing his MAGA hat but removed it when he entered the building. Still, he displayed it at his table or on top of his backpack. The session’s leader saw the hat and reported to Garrett that she felt intimidated and traumatized. A few teachers were upset as well.

Garrett asked Dodge about the hat after the session. He told her he wore hats to protect his head from the sun but that he liked the MAGA hat’s message. He said he was not trying to provoke a reaction at the training session with the hat.

The principal told him some perceived the hat as a symbol of “hate and bigotry” and he should use “better judgment” in the future. The next day, Dodge brought the hat to another session. Another teacher texted Garrett, and the principal confronted Dodge later in the day.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Eesha Pendharkar, Staff Writer; Arianna Prothero, Assistant Editor; and Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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