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Hillsborough high school at center of 'social justice' controversy

PLANT CITY — It was just another day at work for the principal of Durant High School. She had to write a letter to parents. She had to reassure them no harm would come to the 2,400 young Cougars.

At issue were two words that touched off a firestorm clear across the state. Two days earlier, a school guidance counselor had announced plans for a "social justice" group at Durant.

"This is in no way an activist group!" Pamela Bowden wrote in a letter that went out Thursday to parents. "We are not promoting any political ideologies."

It was, Bowden acknowledged, unfortunate phrasing.

"If you say 'social justice' to some of us, it means civics," said Candy Olson, who chairs the School Board. "But to some people, it raises a red flag."

To those people, it suggests communism.

School officials say that in response to a survey of student concerns, counselor Angel Vazquez had invited kids to participate in staff-led discussions on a variety of topics. One would deal with bullying. Another would address prejudice and diversity. Called the "Justice League," that second group hoped to ''give students the tools necessary to promote equality for all.''

But the wording hit a nerve with some parents. One, with two kids at Durant, contacted Geoff Ross, a 48-year-old activist with ties to the tea party and the John Birch Society.

"Everybody is not equal," said Ross, who equated the "social justice" concept to Marxist communism. ''The way it looks to me, they want to have a pity party in school. If you're a failing student, they're going to make you a passing student.''

Although he lives in the Panhandle town of Navarre, Ross said it matters to him what is taught in Plant City. "Every kid in Florida, I consider my kid," he said.

So Ross had a conversation with Bowden. He says she reassured him that she is a patriot, that her son is a West Point graduate and that she would never allow communism to be taught at her school.

In an email sent to his supporters and the St. Petersburg Times, Ross wrote that Vazquez, the counselor, was "written up and summarily court martialed" for his actions.

That account angered others in the community as the email was passed around. One parent, who had been considering Durant as a school choice option, wrote to several School Board members, as well as superintendent MaryEllen Elia, demanding to know what gave Bowden the right to harass Vazquez over a difference in political views.

A few things need to be understood, said district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe:

First: Bowden did not harass or court-martial Vazquez. Rather, Cobbe said, the principal sat him down and cautioned him to be careful with written communication, and to avoid phrases that might be misconstrued.

"It was like a teachable moment," she said.

Cobbe also said that unlike formal clubs, which are governed by specific district rules, the Justice League was intended simply as an informal discussion group, a chance for students — with their parents' consent — to talk things out with a sympathetic adult.

Vazquez and Bowden declined to comment.

"Hopefully, this letter offers clarification to all," Bowden concluded in her letter.

"And I want to remind you that our sole purpose is to meet the personal, social and academic needs of all of our students."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough high school at center of 'social justice' controversy 12/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 11:43pm]
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