May 15, 2024 - News

Miami school board to consider chaplains

Illustration of a pencil drawing the letter t in the shape of two crosses on a lined sheet of paper

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Miami-Dade School Board on Wednesday is expected to review a move toward welcoming religious counselors in public schools — a discussion likely to ignite passions among parents and community members.

Why it matters: Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed into law a bill allowing local districts to add school chaplain programs, and Miami-Dade could be one of the first to do so.

  • The measure argues chaplains can help students "navigate difficult emotions and situations," and supporters say it would expand the resources available to students.
  • Critics, however, worry volunteers may not be able to properly support students, and say such a program could exclude children of certain faiths — similar to concerns expressed by Democratic lawmakers in Tallahassee.

Case in point: The school board has adopted various faith-centered proclamations, including recognizing the National Day of Prayer, which prompted a former board member to say that "God and Jesus Christ" were the only God.

The intrigue: Satanic Temple members have said they plan to volunteer as chaplains, which could set off a First Amendment fight. DeSantis has said the IRS-recognized church would not be allowed to participate, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

What they're saying: Lissette Fernandez, a district parent and co-founder of Moms for Libros, told Axios that her "biggest fear" is chaplains will lack the expertise to respond to children struggling with suicidal thoughts or questioning their sexuality.

  • Plus, she worries most volunteers will be of a certain faith, leaving many students out, and that the program could entice districts to forgo professional counselors for volunteers to save money.

Between the lines: The program would be optional for students and would require parental permission.

The other side: Anthony Verdugo, founder and executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, which lobbied for the law, argued the program would simply offer students the option to speak to someone of faith — not push a certain one.

  • The organization isn't trying to "ram our faith down [students'] throat[s]," he told Axios. "All we want to make sure of is that faith is included in the public square along with all forms of speech."

Yes, but: The coalition was ardently opposed to a failed effort to recognize October as LGBTQ+ History Month. Members at the September board meeting passed out "Education Not Indoctrination" stickers.

  • Verdugo told Axios discussions about sexuality "[aren't] comparable to faith."

Bottom line: The item, proposed by school board member Roberto Alonso, whom DeSantis endorsed, is a feasibility study, meaning district staff would still need to determine if such a program is possible and its potential ramifications.

  • Board member Luisa Santos during a committee meeting earlier this month stressed the importance of researching how the program would be fair and inclusive before considering implementation.
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