Some educators raise questions about new ‘mental health’ screens in New York City schools

Some New York City public school teachers, and their union, the United Federation of Teachers, are raising concerns about the “mental health screeners” the City began administering to students last month.

Last December, Mayor Bill de Blasio along with First Lady Chirlane McCray announced the City would roll out new mental health check-ups to public school students in neighborhoods hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic during the fall of 2021. The “check-ups” would take the form of five-minute-long questionnaires, which students would fill out, the results of which would help school officials connect kids struggling with mental health support.

By the spring of this year, the plan expanded to all schools across the five boroughs with the help of federal pandemic relief funds as part of the City’s effort to help students deal with trauma endured during the pandemic.

“It has never been more critical than right now to provide deep, comprehensive mental health supports for our young people,” said DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer. “ Five minutes of time using a researched-back tool is a small price to pay to ensure every single student at every level is getting the social-emotional supports they deserve after the last two years of disruption.”

But the “mental health” screens look very different than how City officials initially described them. Instead of students filling out five to seven-question-long surveys, teachers or other school staff will fill out 40-question-long online screens, called the Devereux Student Strength Assessment, or DESSA, about students on things like self-confidence, ability to socialize, and decision-making skills.

Finished screens will then be interpreted by another instructor, a social-emotional lead, who has to complete 13 hours of training in order to interpret questionnaire answers. And based on screen results, children will be placed into different groups based on social-emotional needs with the neediest students connected to extra support. In addition, answers can also impact school-wide programming decisions.

The DOE is phasing in DESSA use at city public schools throughout the fall with screen data to be collected by Dec. 4, according to a department spokesperson.

Some school community members feel that they have been left in the dark concerning the City’s mental health screens with the UFT even requesting a meeting with DOE officials to clarify questions about the length of time teachers will have to fill out screens late last month.

“The Department of Education needs to make it clear what the DESSA screening tool is and what the purpose of it is to make it clear to families, school staff and students and what it can do and what it’s not meant to do,” said Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children.

DOE officials claim screens will only take instructors a few minutes to complete, but some teachers are skeptical that they will be able to fill out an online form they are unfamiliar with so quickly especially with questions that some have called “ridiculously subjective.”

“It’s kind of ridiculous to me once I saw what the questions were going to be,” said one Bronx middle school teacher who worries she will not be able to answer screens for her allotted 14 students accurately. “It’s stuff like ‘over the past four weeks how frequently has blank student been able to carry themselves with self-confidence…I don’t know what that means.”

UFT leadership came to an agreement with DOE officials late Monday night on increasing the amount of time teachers have to fill out the online questionnaires. Now, instructors assigned to fill out DESSA screens will our hours to complete a class worth of screens and 50 minutes of training time.

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