Duval County Public Schools has canceled its decade-old Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the request of the Florida Department of Education and will lose its half-million-dollar federal grant that helps fund teen health centers and other prevention coalitions.
YRBS is a self-administered, anonymous and optional survey that measures data on student behavior in areas such as tobacco, alcohol and drug use, sexual and physical activity, bullying, suicide and violence. It has been administered to Duval County’s middle and high school students since 2009.
About one in four middle school students (24.4%) reported having made a plan to commit suicide, and more than 16% of high school students reported having attempted suicide in the year before the survey, according to survey Duval County students took in 2021.
The survey also found that approximately 14% of high school students reported having been coerced into sexual intercourse.
On February 9, the Florida Commissioner of Education sent a letter to Duval County Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene “strongly urging” her to reconsider their participation in the survey, claiming that “the CDC Survey asks leading questions phrased in such a way that may actually introduce risk behavior for students,” according to a copy of letter sent to News4Jax.
YRBS is a required component of the CDC’s half-million dollar grant, so by canceling the survey, these counties now lose funding for three other resources:
- Sexual health centers which include 15 teen health centers staffed by nurses and health educators who provide health education and STD, HIV and pregnancy testing, linkage to treatment, care and counseling
- Safe and supportive environments including gender and sexuality alliances and resources for LGBTQ students
- Sexual health education that provides medically accurate, age-appropriate reproductive health classes and teacher training
While losing funding for these clinics does not mean they will be taken away from public schools, as they are required, the grant goes to pay trainers and train teachers on how to answer difficult questions from students.
“Many people rely on this data so they can get their own funding to pay for local initiatives to serve children and families,” said Professor Elissa Barr. “We have estimated that millions of dollars in prevention funds will be lost in Florida without this data.”
Elissa Barr is a public health professor at the University of North Florida and is the research coordinator for YRBS. She explained that one result of the YRBS data shows that sexual behavior is down in both junior and senior high schools, but over the past ten years there has been a statistically significant increase in those who have considered suicide.
“These data show that we need much more support and emphasis on mental health for our youth,” Barr said.
Local community groups such as the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition, Kids Hope Alliance and more use this data to document local needs and therefore apply for their own grants to continue their programs. Barr explained that getting grant funding is competitive, so groups must show funders a data-driven need, which usually came from YRBS.
From August 2022 to January 2023, Duval County Teen Health Centers have served over 1,000 students with individual and group health education and testing. They have identified three teenagers who are positive for HIV – the youngest is 14-156 teenagers positive for a sexually transmitted disease and 27 pregnant teenagers, all of whom have received continued support through treatment, care and counselling.
Barr explained that the YRBS can be changed, and they are willing to take out certain questions that the Department of Education deems “inappropriate,” such as sexual behavior, but these efforts have not been well received.
“I think it’s really important to know that even when we’re told not to, we say, ‘wait a minute, can we compromise?'” Barr said. “It’s a survey that has stood the test of time and has allowed many people to continue their work, services and programs because of this data.”
When the decision was first made to discontinue the survey in 2022, the Department of Education said it would develop its own survey, but Barr said the committee members developing the survey are not all health and education experts. She said some people have suggested it’s going to be more about what happens in the classrooms and what’s being taught, versus assessing youth risk behaviors.
“The children’s right to speak their truth is going to be lost,” Barr said. “It’s our job to meet [students] where they are. Whether adults agree with what they are doing or not, it doesn’t matter. They are still children, teenagers, and they need our support.”
Just some of the results from the 2021 Duval County Middle School YRBS showed that approximately 12% currently use electronic vapor products, 28% have ever used alcohol, 36% have ever been bullied on school property, and 33% have ever carried a weapon.
“I have to ask, why wouldn’t we want to know if kids have been bullied or in fights? Or carried a gun to school?” Barr said. “Why don’t we want to know about the mental health crisis that they’re facing? And how many are depressed and thinking about suicide? Why don’t we want to know about the drugs and alcohol that they’re using? And all the things that they’re dealing with?”
As for the long-term effects ending that investigation could have on students and schools, Barr said the district won’t be able to evaluate the energy, efforts and programs at the schools to determine if they’re making a difference for kids and administration. and adults lose the ability to know what struggles and experiences the students are going through.
“We can’t deny the data,” Barr said. “We have to make data-driven decisions even if it tells us things we don’t like.”
For now, YRBS has been discontinued in Duval County, and while each county has worked individually with the CDC to try to find a way for them to still receive the grant, Barr said from what she’s heard, it’s been “black and white” state level.
Access the full survey results and fact sheet here.
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