Charged with promoting equity, diversity, and cultural outreach in the nations sixth-largest school system, Browards 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 Committees 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 Committees 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 Floridas 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 Browards Calendar Committee, where it is still pending.
Although the Diversity Committees meetings have been a lightning rod for intolerance and infighting, on some occasions its 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 committees reaction was mixed.
We werent 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.