The Miami-Dade County School Board has endorsed a new law enabling volunteer chaplains to serve in schools, following the recent signing of the bill by Governor Ron DeSantis. The decision, met with both support and criticism, aims to provide additional resources for students, according to proponents.

Starting June 1, 2024, volunteer chaplains can join district schools under certain conditions. They must pass a background check and have their names and religious affiliations listed on the school’s website. The initiative is voluntary, with schools having the option to participate and parents required to give consent for their children to interact with chaplains.

Governor DeSantis emphasized that the program aims to address students’ diverse needs by offering spiritual guidance alongside existing resources. He stated that this initiative is not about promoting religion but providing another support avenue for students. DeSantis added that districts must ensure transparency by listing chaplains on their websites, allowing parents to make informed decisions.

Supporters argue that chaplains, already serving in other government roles, such as with the military and police, can offer valuable support to students. They point to the program’s potential to complement the work of school counselors rather than replace them. However, some board members, like Dr. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, view chaplains as an additional voice to help children become better citizens.

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Despite the board’s overall support, the initiative has faced opposition. Critics, including State Senator Lori Berman, argue that the lack of training requirements for chaplains is a significant concern. They suggest that schools should hire more trained professionals, such as social workers and psychologists, instead of unlicensed individuals with religious affiliations. Berman expressed worries about the potential for untrained chaplains to provide inadequate or harmful counseling.

Board member Lucia Baez-Geller, who opposed the plan, declined to elaborate on her stance. Meanwhile, board member Roberto J. Alonso clarified that the chaplain program is designed to supplement, not replace, the work of school counselors.

To address concerns and ensure the program’s success, board members in favor of the initiative are seeking further guidance from state authorities. Dr. Steve Gallon III requested a written legal opinion from the Florida Attorney General and guidance from the Department of Education to help shape the implementation.

This new law places Florida among over a dozen states considering similar school chaplain programs. Texas was the first to introduce such a law in 2023. However, the response in Texas has been notably different.

Comparison to Texas Chaplain Program

In Texas, the Legislature passed a bill in 2023 allowing public school districts to bring in religious chaplains for counseling services. Unlike Florida’s voluntary approach, Texas required all school districts to vote on whether to implement chaplain programs. This mandate led to significant pushback.

Many of Texas’ largest school districts voted against creating chaplain programs, citing concerns about the lack of training requirements and potential proselytizing. These districts emphasized that while chaplains could volunteer in existing programs, they would not serve in counseling roles. The Texas experience highlights the challenges and community sensitivities involved in introducing religious roles into public schools, serving as a cautionary tale for other states considering similar legislation.