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Youth advocates concerned about Florida's new teen health survey results

Survey shows Florida teens are resilient but still struggle with mental health
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Posted at 10:14 AM, Feb 12, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. — Florida teens are resilient, but they continue to struggle mentally and emotionally. Those are the broad but vague conclusions from Florida’s newly created health survey for teens.

Still, some tout it as a good start.

“I think, overall, the states can look at these results and give themselves a little pat on the back,” said Christy DeVigili, a Lee County parents’ rights advocate.

Others are critical, calling the state summary of results too general.

“We’re really struggling to find meaningful conclusions from what we've been presented,” said Takeata King Pang, a youth advocate.

The voluntary survey, which went out to an unknown but limited number of high schools last spring, replaced the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The bi-annual voluntary federal survey has long been used by states to chart and compare risky behavior among US teens.

But after Florida’s Education Commissioner, Manny Diaz, called the federal survey inflammatory and sexualized, Florida’s Department of Education created its own version.

We obtained a copy last year revealing its focus is more on resiliency standards, including grit, gratitude, perseverance, and citizenship, versus actual youth behavior like sex, hard drug use, and gun violence.

According to the recently published results, which were inexplicably delayed for 6 months, Florida teens scored high in overall resiliency, with breakdowns for student gender and ethnicity.

But similar demos aren’t included in the behavioral results posted on the state’s website. Still, what is included still shows teens are struggling with issues including depression and bullying.

For example, 9% of the nearly 3,000 high school students who voluntarily filled out the survey said they’ve been a victim of dating violence. That number is about the same as the statistics from the last time Florida participated in the CDC’s survey in 2021.

In the new Florida survey, 26% of students said they’ve had sex which is down from 36% from the CDC’s 2021 survey. And 46% of Florida students who expressed some level of anxiety during the school year reported in the new survey that they have had feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or loneliness.

But, none of the state’s behavioral results from its new survey include demographic details, including age, gender, or ethnicity.

“We don't know who was surveyed. Was this a cross-section of the state or one community,” asked Pang, who works with the Women’s Foundation of Florida and Florida Healthy Youth Alliance.

Both groups have historically used results from the CDC’s YRBS to determine the needs and resources of Florida teens. Pang is concerned results from Florida’s new survey lack too many details to be useful.

“It does feel that they want to present their best face forward. You want to show that your young people are doing well. I just think we're doing the youth across our state a disservice by not looking at this in a factual and scientific manner,” Pang said, referring to the lack of demographic detail provided in the state’s results.

FDOE said while nearly 3000 Florida teens participated in the voluntary survey on resiliency, just over 2700 teens filled out the behavioral section. It’s unclear why those numbers are different and which areas of the state participated in the study.

The FDOE has refused to release information on which schools the survey was administered to, stating that the information is a matter of “trade secrets.” Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone recently submitted a new public records request for the state’s raw data from the survey.

But even those who support the state’s new resiliency direction question who and what the state is leaving out in its posted results.

“These results are great, but they're not as accurate as they can be because they don't represent everyone,” said Christy DeVigili. The parents’ rights advocate served on the state workgroup that helped create the state’s new resiliency standards for the survey.

“I think Florida is on the right track in putting their focus in the right areas and focusing on resiliency, other than focusing on the problem as much. But I definitely don't think we should be ignoring the problem,” DeVigili said.

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