New York City to Spend $80 Million in Relief Money on ‘Social-Emotional Learning’

By Hannah Cai
Hannah Cai
Hannah Cai
November 17, 2021 Updated: November 17, 2021

New York state has received nearly $9 billion from American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP) to help reopen schools after the lockdown from the pandemic. The NYC Department of Education plans to use $80 million of the relief fund in FY 2022 to support the “Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)” needs of all students, a controversial psychiatric program that several Asian American parent organizations in New York are boycotting.

ARP stipulates that 90 percent of the $9 billion must be allocated to local school districts. It also emphasizes the need to ensure evidence-based interventions that respond to the academic, social, and emotional (CASEL) needs of students and address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain student subgroups.

Therefore, the NYC Department of Education recently introduced a system called the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment to assess students’ “social-emotional skills,” which allocates money to schools based on the size of the district, the number of poor students, English learners, minorities, and so on. According to the parents’ group, some parents received letters from principals asking them to fill out more than 40 intrusive, non-academic questions about their children’s mental health, which all K–12 students must complete by Dec. 4.

Why is Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Used for SEL?

While many see making up for the learning progress missed during the pandemic as paramount, the National Education Association argues that children’s mental health and emotional needs must be considered before academic issues can be effectively addressed, and that learning is almost impossible if children feel unsafe, let alone jumping into “catch-up” mode.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said that promoting “Social-Emotional Learning” is a top priority for schools to address the trauma of the pandemic among students.

Chinese Americans Decry SEL

As early as June 20, 2019, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, his wife Chirlane Irene McCray, and then-Education Department Chancellor Richard Carranza announced a massive expansion of SEL and Restorative Justice (RJ) across schools in NYC.

According to a city press release, the city is working with Sanford Harmony to expand SEL to all elementary schools by hiring 85 additional clinical social workers; as well as offer training in restorative justice for all high schools and secondary schools.

Two years on, SEL and RJ are now even stronger. In fiscal year 2022, with substantial funding for COVID-19 relief, all schools will hire more than 6,000 social workers, psychologists, and family support workers to address SEL needs citywide, starting with a “Summer Rising” program, according to the New York City Department of Education website.

Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY) criticized school SEL programs as having become the primary vehicle for critical race theory (CRT). The group believes that the assessment questionnaire is meant to seek certain answers to justify CRT as mandatory courses.

As parents from a totalitarian state, they also questioned whether SEL could be powerful indoctrination that changes the way people think.

Restorative Justice

RJ is the concept that crimes should be dealt with not only from a legal perspective, but also from the perspective of social or interpersonal conflicts, emphasizing the repair of social relations.

It argues that not only the perpetrator, but also the victim and the community should be repaired. In plain English, it encourages forgiveness, reconciliation between the victim and the perpetrator. This echoes the idea of the “prison abolish movement,” which seeks to end the culture of punishment in criminal justice.

When it comes to schools, “restorative justice” is a sharp departure from the “zero-tolerance” punishments for drugs and violence in schools in the 1990s.

“RJ, which in practice means don’t punish black students in schools, was started by Obama in his 2014 letter to school districts in which he warned schools that if they show ‘disproportionate’ disciplinary actions like suspensions and expulsions, against black students, then his Office of Civil Rights may go after them, for racism,” said George Lee from CACAGNY.

SEL in New York Is More ‘Transformative’

In its 88-page application (pdf) to the U.S. Department of Education in June New York state proposed SEL as the latest elixir in education reforms.

In light of the SEL theories which advocate diversity and inclusion, some groups oppose the stationing of police on campus. They argue that a “school-to-prison” pipeline mainly affects black students and is proof of a discriminatory policy.

In a call to action draft (pdf) named “Framework on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in New York’s Schools,” the NYS Board of Regents wrote, “We are at an inflection point in the nation’s history. With great urgency, we must move beyond the rhetoric of a commitment to educational equity and use this moment of societal unrest to reset and reimagine our system of education. We are morally obligated to seize this moment and redefine what is possible for all of New York’s students.”

Then the state Board of Regents made specific recommendations (pdf) in May: School districts should use the “Culturally Responsive-Sustaining” framework to “elevate historically marginalized voices” and “empower students as agents of social change.” Districts should also take creative steps to improve diversity in school districts, even when districts are more evenly represented, and implement non-discriminatory discipline policies and practices.

At the Heart of SEL Is Constant Self-Examination

Constant self-examination and self-disclosure exercises are at the heart of SEL. According to the SEL guidelines (pdf), school officials will assess all students, pay close attention to student responses, and use the information gathered in the psychological assessment to assess children’s “social-emotional” status to determine whether they are at risk and whether they need to be referred for “intensive” behavioral interventions and “targeted support” in an “appropriate setting. All of this is done in the name of mental health.

With billions of dollars in federal epidemic relief money, New York City has expanded psychological evaluations to every school, according to an April report by Chalkbeat.

McCray said she led many of the Bill de Blasio administration’s mental health efforts, including this one, and she has focused on mental health programs throughout her husband’s tenure as mayor.

However, Thrive NYC, a mental health first aid program headed by McCray, has been criticized for being expensive and lacking effective, clear metrics.

Many details remain unclear. Education advocacy groups in the Chinese community are particularly concerned about privacy, safety, and transparency. Four parent groups, including PLACE NYC, recently issued a joint statement demanding that the Education Department stop the SEL test until all parents’ questions are answered.

Hannah Cai