1. Education

Pasco moms ask school district for more anti-discrimination efforts and training

Sheena Lofton-Huggins saw her son struggle this past year dealing with racism and prejudice at Mitchell High School.

He didn't have all the support he needed, Lofton-Huggins said, or the strategies to stand firm.

When she sought to send her son to Community Tampa Bay's Camp Anytown, a leadership program that focuses on tackling discrimination, Lofton-Huggins learned that Pasco County residents have limited opportunities there. Pinellas and Hillsborough teens get preference.

The need was clear, she said, for more anti-discrimination efforts and training in Pasco County schools.

She wasn't alone in her thinking.

Brittany Powell, a Wesley Chapel mom and educator, said she has heard from many families of color in the county that schools don't fully grasp their concerns or culture, and aren't always prepared to respond when troubles arise. She pointed to the recent situation where an African-American first grader took a knee as his class recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and his teacher told him that "good citizens" stand for the pledge.

That family is suing the district. It reflected the dissonance between the district and some of the families it serves, Powell said.

"I hear it a lot," she said. "They try their best, but they just don't quite understand."

For every "amazing" teacher who sponsors a unity day, where students from all walks of life gather to deconstruct the things that might separate them, there's a teacher who views minorities, poor children or any sort of "other," as a challenge or worse, the women agreed.

The time has come, they said, for everyone to get better trained in cultural sensitivity and diversity.

"With Pasco growing so rapidly, it's really needed," Lofton-Huggins said.

They formed Pasco County Agents for Change, and have begun meeting with key district officials. They're also collecting records about the scope of the district's student body and staff.

"Unfortunately, there is no continuity throughout the district," Lofton-Huggins said. "Some of our schools value [diversity]. Some of our other schools haven't gotten there."

Superintendent Kurt Browning said he welcomed the parents' participation, but contended the district already is working toward their goal.

The district hired an equity officer in its employment office a couple of years ago, he said, and assigned its newly hired school guards to complete diversity training.

One of the first things he did as superintendent was pull together a student-focused anti-bullying forum, called Together We Stand, that has evolved into promoting inclusion among students, Browning added.

The moms acknowledged the efforts as a "great start." They suggested, though, that those haven't been widespread or consistent enough.

The summer student Unity conference, for instance, included only a handful of school leaders, they said. Many of the students who do not attend, and who feel left out, lack a meaningful way to take advantage of the lessons, they said.

And many teachers appear uncomfortable incorporating diversity instruction into their classrooms, if they even know how, they said.

Several teachers have alternative certification, Powell added, meaning they have even less preparation to handle classroom problems than traditionally educated teachers.

The training needs to be broadened, she said. "There is more that can be done."

If the district adopts a model for everyone, they suggested, it could go a long way toward making all children and their parents feel more included in their schools. Everyone will see the issue as important, they said, and the climate will improve.

Pasco Pride has thrown its support behind the effort, which aims to create more understanding among people.

It's essential, Lofton-Higgins said, because not everywhere in the world is the same.

"We want to graduate students who are going to be global citizens," she said. "When they go out into the workforce, it's not going to be one homogenous thing. We need to be teaching them now to see the value in it."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.