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Editorial: Why did Florida pull out of important survey of teenagers?

Without adequate justification, Florida officials have made a poorly timed decision to pull out of a wide-ranging national survey measuring health and behavior risks among the state’s teenagers. The survey polls high school students anonymously on topics including diet, smoking, alcohol use, sexual behavior and mental health. Florida officials say they’ll run their own survey instead, but there’s no logical case for reinventing the wheel to collect this vitally important data.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey has been conducted every other year since 1991. The school-based survey is administered by Florida’s health and education departments. But this year, state education officials opted out — without explanation or justification, which is in itself a bad look.

Interim Florida education commissioner Jacob Oliva later announced that Florida would run its own version of the survey, collecting most or all of the same information. The CDC’s 2021 questionnaire asked kids about safety issues like their seat belt use, whether they had texted while driving, gotten in fights or been bullied. It asked about their habits like smoking, vaping, drinking alcohol and using marijuana. And it delved into more private topics like suicidal thoughts or attempts, sexual activity, use of contraceptives and sexual assault.

Simply put, the survey compiles important, real-time, source-level data about a range of issues affecting Florida teens’ health and development, which is vital for directing public health resources where they’re needed most. The Orlando Sentinel reported that past years’ surveys have revealed exploding incidents of cyber-bullying, greater suicide risk among LGBTQ students and rising vaping habits among teens. Oliva said past years’ data has informed the creation of programs advocated by Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis. If the information has been so useful, why change the system?

There’s reason to be skeptical of this hasty move. In a statement about the importance of the survey, Oliva said, “We need to be collecting data to keep all of our students safe, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of what programs they are in.” In the wake of the passage of Florida’s misguided “Parental Rights in Education” bill — widely derided as the “don’t say gay” bill — it will be important to monitor whether the new survey attempts to suppress data collection about the state’s most vulnerable young people.

Depression and suicide are on the rise among teenagers, made worse by isolation brought on by the pandemic. The rates are higher among minority and marginalized groups like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. The best way to combat those alarming trends is to arm mental health advocates with information — not to stop asking hard questions.

There’s no compelling reason for Florida to opt out of the CDC’s long-running youth risk survey. State officials should reverse course, rather than start from scratch with their own at such a critical time. Reliable data is needed now to identify growing areas of concern, provide support through schools for at-risk teens and inform public policy and fiscal decisions to protect young Floridians’ health and safety. The federal survey has served these purposes for more than 30 years, and there’s no reason to turn back now.

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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.

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©2022 Tampa Bay Times. Visit at tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published May 20, 2022 3:00 AM.

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