Our Voices

As school mask mandates drop but anxieties stay, a plea to go further than traditional SEL

Time and time again, Robert F. Kennedy made clear that it was youth who changed his worldviews on critical issues.

There was his 1963 conversation with a young John Lewis and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who endured arrests and beatings in their efforts to desegregate Cambridge, Maryland. Lewis later recalled Kennedy telling him: “John, now I understand. The young people, the students have educated me.”

In one of Kennedy’s most famous speeches, delivered to students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1966, he noted that “if we would meet our responsibilities to mankind; we must first, all of us, demolish the borders which history has erected between men within our own nations—barriers of race and religion, social class and ignorance. Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth.”

Nearly 60 years later, these quotes feel remarkably fresh, but with a caveat. America’s youth—many of whom marched throughout the summer of 2020 demanding racial justice, and others who have spent recent weeks marshaling money and resources to war-torn Ukraine—have become anxiety-ridden in a way Robert Kennedy likely never would have predicted. Across the country, children have experienced soaring rates of mental health challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, a situation so dire that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. What’s more, as mask mandates have been lifted in schools across the nation in recent weeks, some anxieties have only worsened.

It’s clear, students need more care than ever. And yet, Boston College Professors Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley recently wrote, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), a popular front-line effort to battle the mental health epidemic plaguing our young people is far from a panacea.

As an organization which has spent decades dedicated to teaching and training the next generation of human rights defenders, we couldn’t agree more.

Now, RFK Human Rights Speak Truth to Power and the University of Connecticut’s Dodd Human Rights Impact Institute have launched a renewed effort for the U.S. school system to approach Human Rights Education (HRE) as a mechanism for framing the core principles of democracy rather than a curriculum add-on or one-shot program.

Instead of teaching SEL as an independent add-on, we believe centering HRE into our educational system will extend the impact of SEL, transforming personal empowerment democratic engagement and social change.

Time and time again, research suggests this can produce positive outcomes for students, including an improved sense of self-worth and self-efficacy, increased empathy, and a reduction in bullying and harmful behaviors in classrooms. In the end, learning about their personal rights and the rights of others fosters students’ sense of advocacy for the betterment of all.

A test case for the nation: Bangor High School in recent months has rolled out a first-of-its-kind initiative that provides teachers with professional training and development and assists the entire school in adopting systems and structures that cultivate an inclusive, dignity-driven learning environment.

The partnership is a substantial step toward a more inclusive culture and school climate at a campus that, like many schools across the country, has been strained in recent years as it addressed claims of racism by diverse students. Since the program has begun,

Bangor Director of Guidance Adam Leach has described “a palpable positive energy” from students and staff who are excited to grow their knowledge about equality, justice and inclusivity.

That energy was palpable the other day, when, as part of the program, students got a virtual visit from former Ukrainian First Lady Kateryna Yushchenko, who taught them vital lessons about courage and preserving democracy.

“The U.S. and the international community must also actively work in helping the world to see Ukraine’s extraordinary people for who they are, brave souls committed to democracy. Doing less indicates we’re on Putin’s side,” she said then.

As stewards of Kennedy’s holistic vision for a better, more just and peaceful world, we know it to be a societal disservice for Bangor’s approach to exist in a vacuum. In the coming months, we plan to engage educators from around the world, calling on thought leaders and partners to devise local, state and national level road maps to achieving our goal to develop the next generation of leaders such as Lewis, heeding his advice to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble and redeem the soul of America.”

Karim is Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Director of Human Rights Education.