Florida should rejoin teen risk survey | Editorial
Nationwide survey has worked for 30 years
Students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018, after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)
Students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018, after a shooter opened fire on the campus. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File) [ MIKE STOCKER | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published June 3, 2022

The state of Florida should reverse course and rejoin a wide-ranging national survey on the behavior risks of young people. Drug use, sexual activity and eating habits among teenagers are just a few choices that can have life-changing impacts — for children, their families and society alike. It doesn’t make sense — and this certainly isn’t the time — for Florida to reinvent the wheel on a barometer that’s worked well for 30 years.

Every other year since 1991, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey has acted as an early-warning system for America’s teenagers. Using questionnaires, the survey monitors behaviors that can lead to death, injury and illness among young people — everything from fighting and bullying and the use of weapons and tobacco to poor dieting and low physical exercise.

The state has conducted the survey in coordination with the CDC, but Florida’s interim education commissioner, Jacob Oliva, announced recently that Florida would run its own survey, collecting most or all of the same information. While Oliva acknowledged that past years’ data, which revealed greater suicide risks among LGBTQ students, and increases in cyber-bullying and vaping habits, had informed programs advocated by Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, he said state officials determined they could get the same material more efficiently and effectively themselves.

That’s hardly a response for duplicating the federal effort, and it doesn’t address what state-specific questions warrant Florida going it alone. As more than three dozen child advocacy organizations pointed out in May in urging Florida to reconsider its decision, the current federal survey “already allows” Florida to add specific items to the CDC model and to eliminate those not wanted. By leaving, Florida would lose federal grant money to administer the survey. And creating and testing a new questionnaire would take time and resources. Doesn’t Florida have greater priorities when barely half its third-graders passed this spring’s statewide reading test?

Creating a new model would make it harder for Florida to compare youth behaviors here with elsewhere, denying the state the Florida-centric lens on teens that it purports to be seeking. And starting anew means creating a new baseline, which would hinder Florida’s ability to view trends in an apples-to-apples comparison over the past three decades.

These surveys are essential tools for gauging the health and development of Florida teens, both in real-time and over the longer-term, and for directing educational and public health resources to match the emerging crises of the moment. Depression and suicide among youth was already on the rise before COVID-19, and the isolation brought on by the pandemic only made matters worse. And rates are higher among minority and marginalized groups like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Even if Florida’s effort is not intended to sanitize this information, the nation’s third-largest state cannot ignore comparing what’s happening here with the rest of the country.

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The state should reverse course. With millions of Floridians hit hard by inflation, skyrocketing gas and housing costs and the lingering dangers from COVID, this is the worst possible time to gum up an established survey assessing the anxiety and health risks among Florida’s next generation of adults. The federal survey has helped schools and health care providers protect young Floridians for years, and if the state is so awash with staff time and resources, it can dedicate them to the fight already being waged.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.