JACKSONVILLE, Fla — When Julia Reisinger, a mother of three and a Duval Schools teacher, read an email from Duval County Public Schools, she was shocked.
That's because the note to parents and guardians about mental health awareness and suicide prevention started by encouraging students to take off their masks. Now, the school district says it will re-adjust.
"Face coverings have been required in most school settings since the district reopened in August, but Duval County Public Schools is giving students permission to 'take off the mask' when it comes to expressing and getting help for any emotional struggles they are experiencing," the initial email to families said.
Of course, this wasn't supposed to be taken literally and face masks are still mandated on Duval Schools campuses. The district described the campaign as a way to encourage students to reach out to trusted adults when they are suffering.
But parents and teachers say at a glance, and with the misleading email subject line: "Help students #TakeOffTheMask," they're worried the mental health campaign could cause even more harm.
"Communication from the district — especially when it regards the availability of mental health services — needs to be crystal clear," Reisinger told the Times-Union. "The figurative suggestion of 'taking off the mask' is inappropriate, confusing and dangerous."
Reisinger added that she wants to see the school district "acknowledge the blunder and revoke the hashtag" for clarity.
The Times-Union reached out to Duval Schools officials to ask if they would change the email campaign in light of the public response.
"If the campaign and the conversation about the campaign help bring awareness to the issue and the potentially lifesaving resources available to students and families, I certainly have no regrets, but we will shift our language slightly to emphasize other aspects of the message," spokesman Tracy Pierce said. "We also want parents and other caregivers to know that teens will communicate, but they may not always use words. Their behavior speaks loudly, and if a teen in your family is giving nonverbal cues that they need help, there are resources to support you."
The #TakeOffTheMask campaign is part of a month-long push for the school district's You Matter Month for suicide prevention. Resources sent in relation to the campaign include the email to school community members as well as social media graphics with resources including the Florida Department of Children and Families Abuse Hotline, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Duval County Public Schools Bully Prevention Hotline and more.
The social media graphics include illustrations of young people wearing masks, while the Tweets include the #TakeOffTheMask hashtag.
In private social media groups, parents — and even people who identified as school guidance counselors — admitted to misreading the email at first glance and voiced concerns that students would start taking their masks off on campus. Others said they weren't offended by the email and understood it to be an "attention grabber."
"We had people getting upset that students would be allowed to remove masks, and others celebrating it. It’s no wonder I have difficulty teaching the difference between figurative and literal language in my class. It was really bad wording," said Shannon Russell-Hinds, a teacher at Sandalwood High School. "There were so many who took that figure of speech literally, which compounded the problem as well."
Still, Russell-Hinds appreciates that the school is promoting You Matter Month and taking mental health awareness seriously.
As previously reported by the Times-Union, the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey — a self-administered, anonymous survey that’s part of a larger national initiative led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — revealed that more students attending Duval County Public Schools have attempted suicide, felt bullied or are doing drugs than the state average.
"The data showing the large segment of teens who have contemplated suicide is what led us to a campaign to help families recognize the signs and help students and families connect with helpful resources," Pierce said. "The mask language is clearly symbolic, and we hope that students who are struggling emotionally will respond to the message: It’s okay to be honest and share your need with people who can help."
According to the survey, more than 31 percent of middle school students and more than 22 percent of high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide.
"I love that they want to assist with mental health, but this hashtag drove a bunch of otherwise sane people crazy," Russel-Hinds said.
If you, or someone you know, are struggling emotionally, help is available. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-877-273-8255 or United Way of Northeast Florida by dialing 2-1-1.