The Hillsborough County School Board firmly rejected a proposal Thursday to adopt a district policy that mirrors the state’s new rules on how to tackle racial issues in history class.
Some questioned why the proposal, brought forward by board member Melissa Snively, would be made. And after a strong reaction by six of her colleagues, it was withdrawn.
Snively acknowledged the policy was not necessary, as the state has already made it clear that lessons in U.S. history must be based on a premise that the nation was founded on universal principles described in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
New rules adopted in June by the State Board of Education specifically ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” a broad set of ideas exploring systemic racism in society and its institutions. The state also banned the use of a New York Times teaching product called “The 1619 Project.”
First to respond was Hillsborough board member Henry “Shake” Washington, who at 72 has personal experience living under Jim Crow.
Clearly emotional at times, Washington described being forced to sit in the back of the bus as a child, using “colored” rest rooms and drinking fountains, and being allowed into the Florida State Fair only on designated “Negro” days.
Wednesdays were the only days when Black children were allowed in Tampa’s Cuscaden public swimming pool. “Every time we left the pool, they cleaned the pool,” he said.
He spoke of returning from military service and attending college, where he was a quarterback on the football team. In those days, he said, there were no Black quarterbacks, and he returned to the dorm room to see a racial epithet scrawled on the door.
“When you lived it, you know about it,” Washington said. “We don’t want to ever have fake history.”
One by one, the rest of the board apologized and thanked Washington for sharing his experiences before launching into their own remarks, which they had prepared as soon as the proposal landed on the meeting agenda.
“I am not for this at all,” said board member Karen Perez. She said a true history curriculum would include the current debate about masks, the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, the protests of 2020 and “how some groups were treated during this time, especially by people who were elected to keep us safe from harm.”
She suggested some are opposed to critical race theory — which, everyone including Snively, acknowledged is not taught in K-12 schools — because “people in this community don’t want their children to learn how they treated others.”
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Chairperson Lynn Gray said that “social studies does not just include facts and figures. It includes critical thinking. It includes an understanding of all cultures. I would hate to see anything subtracted from an education because an educated person really has a vast amount of opportunities to learn. And if we subtract it, that’s not a true education.”
Board member Jessica Vaughn took issue with the idea that teachers might suppress or distort history. “Who decides if something has been distorted or has been suppressed?” she asked. She said her own education was woefully deficient in African American history.
As for the Constitution, Vaughn said, “we all know that our Constitution, as well-intentioned as it was, did not include slaves and women and Black voices. We had to fight to change the Constitution to be reflective for years and years and years. And we still have not ratified equal rights for women.”
The policy is unnecessary, said board member Stacy Hahn. “This particular policy, which is verbatim from Tallahassee, has already been addressed by the governor. We know where we stand. I am at a loss as to why we are having this discussion today.”
Board member Nadia Combs took offense that the proposal came forward.
“We are in a time where our hospitals are filled,” she said. “Kids have lost learning. We have high suicide rates. And we’re bringing about policies to divide our district. This is not the time or the place, it is never the place for this.”
Snively joined the others in apologizing and commending Washington before she withdrew the proposal.
“I am in no way trying to minimize African American history,” she said.
“What I am trying to do is, just like all the other board members, we all hear from our constituents. We all hear concerns from our constituents. And sometimes they ask board members to bring things forward for consideration.”
Snively represents District 4 in east Hillsborough.