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Hillsborough is still considering changes to its schools' racial equity policy after state pushback

back of a school bus from the outside
Hillsborough County Schools

The Hillsborough County School District will gauge the community's reaction to its racial equity policy in the coming weeks after the state Department of Education said the district is out of compliance with the new "Stop WOKE" law.

The Hillsborough County School District will further gauge the community's feelings on its racial equity policy in the coming weeks.

A Tuesday school district workshop brought the latest discussion on the policy statement, which stems from a letter the state Department of Education sent the district saying it’s out of compliance with the new "stop WOKE" law.

The current policy’s purpose statement — which is what the state highlighted as an issue — reads as follows:

“Purpose: Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) students deserve respectful learning environments in which their racial and ethnic diversity is valued and contributes to successful academic outcomes. This policy confronts the institutional racism that results in predictably lower academic achievement for students of color than for their white peers. Understanding and addressing institutional racism will increase achievement, including on-time graduation, for ALL students, while narrowing the gaps between the highest and lowest-performing students.”

Specifically, the school board on Tuesday focused on the term "institutional racism” used in the state statement.

Superintendent Addison Davis suggested the school board opt to remove the purpose statement entirely, while still keeping the overall policy in place.

“If you look in this particular policy and you remove the purpose statement, it still continues to put ownership of the superintendent to make certain that I am actively engaged in our community, that we're making certain that there are systems about being able to address racial equity within our school district, and that we're focused on leadership, teaching and learning to be able to accelerate the work for every one of our students,” Davis said.

But some board members, like Henry "Shake" Washington, said — through tears — how important it is for the language to stay put.

"I'm kind of upset, because I've always been a person with honesty, and dealt with people in a positive way, and I think it's so important for us to understand that we cannot eliminate that part. There are some things that you can’t eliminate,” Washington said.

Board member Karen Perez said the policy and the specific language about racial equity are still needed, as the district continues to deal with achievement gaps for minority students.

“Our schools here in Hillsborough County have to change, or they're going to have much to regret,” Perez said. “We have much to offer to right the wrongs that we've done here. And we cannot sit on the sidelines and continue to write lines through wording to make us feel better.”

But other board members say abiding by state guidelines is most important, even if they disagree with the change.

“I want us to have to be recognized as the district of diversity, and in so doing, it's a dangerous way to take out what perceivably is real institutional racism,” said school board member Lynn Gray. “But at the same time, as we all are learning, if we do not [change the policy language] — and this is very similar to the Parental Bill of Rights — we could face anything from a class-action suit, to removing all board members.”

Board member Stacy Hahn is also in favor of removing the language from the purpose statement, saying it wouldn’t change the effectiveness of the district is promoting diversity and equity.

“I don't want us to get hyper-focused on the words as much as our actions,” Hahn said. “That's what matters. How we behave, and in the end, how we determine how people are going to be treated.”

Still, other school board members pushed back on that mindset.

“It might be any word in that policy,” said board member Jessica Vaughn. “First, we take out the purpose, then we have to take out other words, and before you know it, our equity policy is completely gone.”

Vaughn, along with other district officials, said the state has been continuously vague when it asked to clarify what exactly is wrong with the purpose statement.

"If I live in a state where I was elected to represent my community, and I can't get clarity from my governing body on how a policy that we've written that wins awards, is violating a law, and that response is going to be to remove me from office, that we are living in a state that has an erosion of democracy,” Vaughn said.

The board ultimately decided to hold a public hearing on the purpose statements and potentially changing it, and the district’s legal team will craft a few newly worded purpose statements to showcase during the meeting.

The state also found that the school district’s LGBTQ+ Critical Resource and Support Guide is out of compliance on issues such as gender pronouns, restroom usage, and coming-out guidelines. The school board didn’t discuss that non-compliance during Tuesday’s meeting.

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