Several House Education Committee Republicans displayed open hostility Tuesday over a recommendation to train teachers and help support students’ social-emotional well-being.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and her staff were on hand to present an overview of the recommendation, issued last fall by Gov. Brad Little’s “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force.
On paper, Tuesday’s meeting seemed routine.
The task force — stacked with educators, business leaders and policymakers — backed the recommendation.
Little supports it.
Teacher of the Year Stacie Lawler has made mental wellness and suicide prevention her signature cause. Lawler earned a standing ovation last month from the same House Education Committee after sharing a personal story about her own children’s struggles.
Ybarra also backs social-emotional learning training and resources. Ybarra said professional educators have practically begged for additional support — since Idaho’s suicide rate ranks about fifth in the nation and the new Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that 23 percent of students have expressed suicidal thoughts in the last year, the highest level in a decade.
Ybarra asked for $1 million (out of a $2 billion proposed education budget) to help with training and resources. The money would go to training for teachers to help them identify at-risk students, intervene in a crisis and help address risky youth behaviors while creating a healthy classroom environment.
Everything seemed routine and straightforward, but Tuesday’s meeting proved to be anything but.
“Let me start by saying I do not share your enthusiasm (for the social-emotional learning proposal),” Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, told Ybarra staffers. “What kind of disruptive behavior are we talking about?”
“We’re talking about more time spent, um, in an area with kids and teachers that really is a role that should be dealt with in the home,” Ehardt said. “It seems like everything is flipping.”
Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, asked legislators to engage in a thought experiment, which he promised would take only 10 seconds.
“It’s scary to me, and I’m not scared of a lot of things. Whatever happened to character development?”
Go back a generation or more, Wisniewski said, back to when legislators were in school.
For many, it was the 1960s, he said, when things were different.
There was respect then, he claimed.
Parents, Wisniewski said, would “take us behind the woodshed, if necessary.”
He then compared the social-emotional recommendation to the dystopian 1932 Aldous Huxley novel “Brave New World.”
“It’s scary to me, and I’m not scared of a lot of things,” Wisniewski said. “Whatever happened to character development?”
At one point, Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, attempted to jump in and get the meeting back on course.
“The situation is we have teachers who have to face this and they have to deal with it,” Clow said. “Once it’s already in your classroom, they have very few tools.”
By that point the floodgates were open and the questions and pushback continued for another 45 minutes.
Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, said Idaho has already invested in school counselors and said numerous programs are already in place to address suicide prevention. She suggested that Idaho needs to have “some accountability” for those existing programs.
One by one, three committee Republicans gathered their things, got up and left the meeting out a back door while the presentation continued.
First, Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, left.
Then Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, walked out.
Finally Moon got up and left moments after asking SDE officials a series of questions.
“I’m not interested in building a mythical bridge to the 1950s where every parent is a version of Ward and June Cleaver.”
None of them explained their departure or returned to the meeting.
The Republican pushback evoked a strong rebuke from Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise.
After listening for several minutes, Berch said Idaho students are dying by suicide far too often, while other students struggle with drug use or come from broken homes. Social media and peer pressure, Berch said, enflame the whole situation.
“I’m not interested in building a mythical bridge to the 1950s where every parent is a version of Ward and June Cleaver,” Berch said.
The meeting adjourned without any official action.
Afterwards, Ybarra had strong words during an interview with Idaho Education News, saying some legislators turned the debate into “a political football.”
“I just don’t know how you can say no to that,” Ybarra said. “I just don’t know how you can consciously, in good faith represent the people of Idaho and say (you are) ‘tired of being asked for money for programs.’
“We have mental health issues in the state of Idaho that need to be addressed,” Ybarra continued. “Period. End of discussion. Parents and teachers are asking for support.”
Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on February 11, 2020