As diversity needs shift, Broward schools consider new advisory group

Charged with promoting “equity, diversity, and cultural outreach” in the nation’s sixth-largest school system, Broward’s Diversity Committee has for years been a strong watchdog for fairness — at times blasting district leaders for the decrepit building conditions in schools with large minority populations.

But as the definition of diversity has shifted to include issues affecting other groups, like gay students, the Diversity Committee has stumbled. At one point, a committee member had to step down after he called gay activists “devious people.”

Today the committee is more receptive to issues facing gay students, but its members continue to butt heads over what their core mission should be: Which diversity goals are the most important in 2013? Does protecting gay and lesbian students take precedence over inspecting the quality of inner-city schools?

Rather than take sides in that thorny debate, Broward School Board members are poised to create a second tolerance-focused committee. Known as a “Human Relations Committee,” it would likely absorb much of the Diversity Committee’s functions, including the gay rights issues that have proved so divisive in the past. School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson insists the move is not a negative reflection on the Diversity Committee’s performance — and the Diversity Committee will continue to exist.

The new group, she said, will “promote tolerance and respect for different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.” It could be up and running by the time school starts again in the fall. The School Board will discuss the issue next week.

School Board member Katie Leach said the changes are a long overdue recognition that the Diversity Committee, which is advisory in nature, has too much work on its plate. Leach notes that the committee is also tasked with monitoring a 2000 legal settlement between the district and a community group that sued over how older, eastern schools were historically neglected. Many of those schools serve a large population of black students, and under the terms of the court settlement, the Diversity Committee conducts site visits to make sure Broward is providing for all students equally.

If the committee changes go forward, the Diversity Committee would keep that monitoring role, but would no longer handle the sort of hot-button issues that have made its meetings a battleground in South Florida’s culture wars.

In November, for example, the committee discussed the possibility of closing schools for two Muslim holidays. The anti-Muslim rhetoric from public protestors was so inflammatory that a police officer stepped in and threatened to shut down the meeting. The proposal was referred to Broward’s Calendar Committee, where it is still pending.

Although the Diversity Committee’s meetings have been a lightning rod for intolerance and infighting, on some occasions it’s been members of the public (and not committee members) making insensitive remarks.

Gay and lesbian community activists, have, over time, found a more welcoming environment at the Diversity Committee. But in April, when the Broward school district chose a Diversity Committee meeting to unveil its new staff training manual designed to protect gay students, the committee’s reaction was mixed.

“We weren’t talking about going in and teaching kids how to be gay or have gay sex,” said Diversity Committee Chairwoman Jeanne Jusevic. “That was the mindset of the people who were objecting to this whole thing on that issue.”

The Diversity Committee didn’t need to vote on the manual, and Broward has implemented the new training with little employee resistance, Jusevic said. In fact, the employees welcomed the new manual more than her committee did, she said.

Local gay activist Michael Rajner served on the Diversity Committee for four years, leaving in 2011. He describes the experience as frustrating, and says some committee members viewed diversity as purely a “black-and-white issue.”

“A diversity committee should be a colorful rainbow,” Rajner said. “It just doesn’t understand that.”

Rajner was on the committee during a high-profile case in 2011 in which the district investigated whether the principal at Pompano Beach’s Blanche Ely High School had threatened two girls with suspension for holding hands, while outing one of the girls as a lesbian to her parents. Rajner was infuriated by the allegations, but he said one Diversity Committee member reacted at the time with an unsympathetic “homophobic” comment.

The comment “was just reinforcing the homophobia that we feel is among some of our older generations, especially in the black community,” Rajner said.

The district’s investigation eventually exonerated the principal.

Years earlier, in 2005, the relationship between the gay community and Broward’s Diversity Committee hit its low point over a children’s video, We Are Family. The video, produced by the Anti-Defamation League and featuring cartoon character SpongeBob Squarepants, had been screened at Wilton Manors Elementary even though it wasn’t part of the district’s approved curriculum. When the Diversity Committee weighed in on the matter, it rejected the video as a teaching tool, but it was how that rejection took place that caused an uproar.

Then-committee member Roland Foulkes complained that the video had the backing of “homosexual advocacy groups,” and he then raised concerns about unorthodox families such as the David Koresh and Charles Manson cults. Another committee member — conservative radio host Steve Kane — called gay activists “devious, devious people.”

The fallout led School Board members to consider suspending the Diversity Committee altogether, though they ultimately decided not to. Kane, however, quickly resigned.

The new Human Relations Committee, if ultimately approved, would be tasked with such sensitive topics. And the makeup of the new panel might be noticeably younger. Levinson said the committee’s planned structure is still being hashed out, but a key component will be the inclusion of some Broward County students as members.

“We have human relations councils in our schools,” Levinson said. “It’s very valuable to include students.”

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