Puzzled by new law, Hillsborough eyes cutting the term ‘institutional racism’ from school policy

Do Florida officials object to the wording in the school district’s racial equity policy? It’s hard to know.
The Hillsborough County School Board meets on Tuesday for a workshop where members discussed whether the district's racial equity policy violates a new state law.
The Hillsborough County School Board meets on Tuesday for a workshop where members discussed whether the district's racial equity policy violates a new state law. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Jan. 17|Updated Jan. 17

For nearly 90 minutes on Tuesday, Hillsborough County School Board members wrestled with two words in their governing documents: “institutional racism.”

Emotions were high as they debated whether to revise the school district’s nationally recognized racial equity policy out of fear that they might incur sanctions from the state.

Board member Henry “Shake” Washington wept as he recalled his own school years in Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough County School Board member Henry "Shake" Washington at a workshop on Tuesday.
Hillsborough County School Board member Henry "Shake" Washington at a workshop on Tuesday.

“Racism is alive,” said Washington, 73. “It’s for real. I’ve been through it. We couldn’t go to a restroom because we were Black. We could not drink out of water fountains because we were Black. We couldn’t go to certain stores because we were Black.”

Others said they fear costly consequences if they do not respond to a warning letter that state leaders sent in November.

“At the end of the day, nobody’s going to be here if we are not abiding by the state law,” said board chairperson Nadia Combs.

Complicating matters is the fact that state leaders have been vague in their warnings, several board members noted.

The Nov. 18 letter from chancellor Jacob Oliva quoted from the 2017 policy’s introductory statement, which includes the term “institutional racism.” The policy says that institutional racism “results in predictably lower academic achievement for students of color than for their white peers.”

Oliva’s letter says some of Hillsborough’s policies “may have not yet been updated to comply with revised Florida law and State Board of Education rule.” That might have been a reference to Florida’s new Stop WOKE law, which prohibits schools and companies from leveling guilt or blame based on race.

Superintendent Addison Davis said he has tried several times to get state leaders to clarify their concerns, but they have not.

Nevertheless, board attorney Jim Porter warned members that after being chastised in the past over masking requirements during COVID-19 and the attempted closing of four charter schools, the district is safest to do what state leaders seem to want.

“We can push back,” Porter said. “But we have seen how the Department of Education, and more importantly the governor, has acted when they feel like they are thwarted.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a public stand against “woke” ideology, also championing a “Parental Rights in Education” law that limits discussion of race and gender issues in schools.

Three of the Hillsborough board members, however, held firm despite the governor’s agenda.

Karen Perez, also looking back at her childhood in the 1960s, recalled seeing her brother get stabbed because he could not speak English. “When people see a Latino or a Black person, people continue to treat us differently,” she said.

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Board member Jessica Vaughn said that, without clarity from the state, the Hillsborough board should not feel compelled to take any action at all.

“That, to me, is like our Miranda rights,” she said. “This, for us, is a defining moment. This is our Rosa Parks moment.”

The district’s chief of diversity, equity and inclusion, Monica Verra-Tirado, suggested the policy introduction could be even stronger, and perhaps more specific to the history of Hillsborough County. “We were one of the last districts in the nation to fully integrate,” she said.

Supporters have used the racial equity policy to justify extra expenditures in many high-minority schools with the goal of curing achievement gaps.

No one argued Tuesday against continuing this work. Even though Davis recommended amending the policy introduction, he said that in practice the district is working intently to improve outcomes in high-minority schools, with measurable results.

But district officials were at a loss as to what to do.

It’s been two months since Oliva’s letter arrived and nearly six weeks since the district sent a response, saying district leaders will consider possible changes in language.

Staff and school board members wondered: Is there a phrase that means “institutional racism” but will appease critics in Tallahassee? If, as some suggested, they remove the introduction but continue the current course of work, will they have watered down the policy?

No vote was taken, as the session was a workshop and not a board meeting. But four of the seven members — Combs, Lynn Gray, Stacy Hahn and Patti Rendon — said they would consider changing the wording as long as the core work continues.

They agreed to revisit the question at a public hearing. No date was set. At the hearing, they will likely consider several policy drafts.

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