Guns, gender identity, drugs, sex.
These are among the hot-button, politically charged topics in Florida you largely won’t see on the state’s new voluntary health survey for teens.
“Instead, they asked questions that had to do with character and had to do with decision-making,” explained Christy Devigili, a Lee County parent and parents’ rights advocate who is among more than a dozen people chosen to be part of a state workgroup to help develop the new Florida-specific youth survey.
Created earlier this year, the Florida-specific youth survey (FSYS) replaces the CDC’s youth risk behavior survey (YRBS). The YRBS is a bi-annual voluntary student questionnaire that has long been used to chart and compare risky behaviors among teens in the U.S. In 2021, for example, results from the YRBS revealed teen girls experiencing record-high levels of violence, poor mental health and suicide risk.
But last year, Florida’s Education Commissioner Manny Diaz called the federal survey “inflammatory” and “sexualized.” In letters to school districts, he all but ordered them to stop participating in the CDC’s youth survey.
Devigili agreed. “There were questions about sexual orientation. There were questions about sexual promiscuity. I mean, there were all sorts of questions that, in my opinion, as a parent, are best left for parents to have those conversations with their kids,” she told us.
So, with the help of researchers from the University of South Florida, Florida’s Department of Education (FDOE) put together its own youth survey.
We obtained a copy.
In it, 223 questions are broken down into 23 different topics primarily focused on specific resiliency standards defined by the state, such as empathy, perseverance, grit, gratitude, and citizenship.
Nearly three-quarters of the questions in the survey focus on these resiliency characteristics, which are also part of Florida’s new state standards for mental health instruction for students.
But when it comes to asking teens about risky behavior, the Florida-specific youth survey deliberately doesn’t go very far.
Just three questions address sexual behavior and focus on abstinence awareness.
While no questions address hard drug use, sexual violence, or campus violence.
In contrast, on the CDC’s 87- question survey, more than half of the questions are aimed at risky behavior, including teen drug use, sexual behavior, campus violence, dating violence, and other potentially violent behaviors.
“I was pleased that the questions weren't too invasive. They asked just enough to where I felt that it wasn't an invasion or an over invasion of parental rights or the kid’s privacy,” said Devigili about the new survey.
But Caitlyn Clibbon, a program analyst for Disability Rights Florida who was also chosen to be part of the state’s youth survey workgroup, has her concerns.
“I don’t know if it’s surprising but it’s definitely disappointing,” she said when asked about Florida’s new survey, which does not include any questions about gender or sexual identity.
Clibbon told us she felt members had little input on survey questions and said workgroup members weren’t shown the questions until shortly before the state distributed the survey to select school districts. (Despite requests, FDOE has not provided us with a list of school districts or schools that received the survey).
“It felt like the level of input that was taken from the workgroup was fairly minimal and that many decisions were made by some other entity outside of the workgroup,” she explained.
Last month, Clibbon wrote a letter to FLDOE’s Vice Chancellor for Strategic Improvement. In the letter which she provided us a copy of, Clibbon raised her concerns about the new survey and described how the process “felt very rushed.” She also expressed concerns about limiting demographic questions to not allowing teens to identify as disabled or LGBTQ+.
But among her biggest concerns with Florida’s new survey is that she believes it focuses too much on resiliency standards. “I am deeply worried about the change in focus on resiliency standards as opposed to actual youth behaviors that may cause disease or disability- the intended purposed of the YRBS,” she wrote in her letter to the state.
“Researchers looking to see if initiatives regarding teen dating, dating violence are working are not going to have useful information out of Florida. It’s not what I hoped for,” she told us during our interview.
Details about how the state created its new youth survey aren’t completely understood.
Despite multiple public records requests by us and our Scripps News attorneys, the FLDOE has yet to provide us with all records related to the survey’s creation and distribution.
But in a PowerPoint presentation to workgroup members in January, it’s clear the state’s intent of the new survey is to measure student resiliency, not risky behavior.
In addition, in an email sent back to Clibbon Friday afternoon, right before we published this report, FLDOE’s Vice Chancellor of Strategic Improvement, Dr. Peggy Aune, responded to Clibbon’s concerns stating in part, “many questions in the FSYS are tailored specifically to required instruction in Florida, gaining more insight into knowledge and behaviors directly related to what Florida’s students are expected to be taught.”
“It looks to me like they've taken the CDC measure and whittled or changed it to fit the context of what the Florida political structure wants,” explained Dr. Sandra Chafouleas, a professor in educational psychology for the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut.
Chafouleas is not involved in Florida’s survey or the CDC’s YRBS. But she has spent her career studying and creating youth assessments. We asked Dr. Chafouleas to review Florida’s new survey for its strengths and weaknesses.
“It doesn't allow us now to do this national comparison, so we're going to lose the ability in many ways to track how Florida [youth] is doing in comparison to other states, which is an important indicator of the health of the citizens of your state,” she said. “On the other hand, you're going to have a lot of information about this space of resiliency, education, and character,” she said.
Traits that are, no doubt, important to how kids are developing but some fear, aren’t enough to help those who may be struggling with something more.
“Asking whether a student knows about abstinence is different than asking whether they practice abstinence,” said Clibbon. “It's less meaningful and less useful,” she said.
Parents can opt their kids out of taking the voluntary state survey. The survey was first administered to high school students in select school districts this past April. According to the FLDOE, results from the first Florida- specific youth survey are expected to be published this summer.