As of this winter, 36 states had passed legislation aimed at keeping critical race theory and other “divisive concepts,” sometimes referred to in law as “prohibited concepts,” out of K-12 public school classrooms. Despite these efforts, these very concepts are still being taught under the guise of addressing mental health and well-being. And I fear it is creating mental health problems in children, through the introduction of such caustic ideas at inappropriate ages.

Since 2000, there has been a 350% increase in the suicide rate of children between 10 and 12 years old. What could be driving this explosion? Part of it could be that pre-adolescent children are being exposed to ideas about adult subjects through books, articles, and learning materials produced by social justice warriors steeped in critical race theory, critical gender theory, and critical feminism. Another might be the promotion of specific books and articles being introduced as part of the same programs, which feed suicide ideation.

These titles include a picture book for first graders titled Brave Irenewhose heroine, buried in the snow, contemplates staying there and freezing to death. For third graders, there is Amos and Boris, one of whose main characters contemplates what it would be like to drown. Fourth graders read a young adult survival story, Hatchetwhose main character, at one point, resolves to cut and kill himself with a hatchet.

Why would we encourage young children to contemplate suicide, or to engage in discussions with adults about it, at such ages? These books are being used in classrooms even in affluent communities, such as Williamson County, Tennessee, where a “Wit and Wisdom” curriculum has integrated materials about suicide into the learning experiences of the youngest students.

This path to harming our children runs through “Social Emotional Learning,” or SEL, programs embedded into school districts that partner with “Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning,” the organization that first developed the SEL concept in the mid-1990s.

Widely described as the “missing piece of education,” SEL is designed to teach children and adults self-awareness and how to manage their emotions. The CASEL website states that “SEL should pervade every aspect of a district’s work.” The Nashville, Austin, El Paso, and Dallas school systems have been deeply involved with CASEL since 2011 as part of its Collaborative Districts Initiative. But as the Idaho Freedom Foundation points out, the SEL approach to learning is actually providing another portal for “prohibited concepts” to enter and thrive in K-12 classrooms.

Through Transformative SEL, CASEL invites schools to leverage the SEL social awareness competency (e.g., empathy for others) to develop a student’s sense of social justice and equity. Simply stated, Transformative SEL, like SEL in general, uses the power of emotional manipulation to advance a critical theory-based agenda. As district partners with CASEL, Dallas, El Paso, Austin, and Nashville actively embrace Transformative SEL. Numerous other districts, like Memphis, have expanded their SEL programs using federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Enter the prohibited concepts.

CASEL’s efforts are supported by progressive organizations like the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, and others that advocate critical theory concepts. Valerie Strauss, an educational expert for the Washington Post, wrote, “After years of criticism that the so-called neutral competencies of SEL favored privileged White forms of emotionality, an emerging movement toward what’s being called ‘transformational SEL’ is now helping some students find their voice in relation to racism and poverty. … It’s time for U.S. educators to go beyond the positive and culturally neutral psychologies of grit, growth mindsets, resilience, and self-regulation as the answers to the mental health crisis and everything that’s causing it. We have to reclaim the bigger and bolder well-being agenda for our students and ourselves.”

The question for Texas, like other states that have made efforts to remove critical-theory-based concepts from K-12 classrooms, is how to close and lock the door — to prevent social justice warriors and activist teachers from using SEL materials and their own values to evade the intent of “prohibited concepts” legislation. What will we do about suicide-ideation books and materials that could be responsible for the rise in child suicides? How will we protect the most vulnerable among us?