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A new law could transform anti-bias training on Florida campuses

Mark Schreiner
WUSF 89.7 News

With Thursday marking 50 years since the federal law known as Title IX was enacted to bar sex-based discrimination in educational institutions, a new Florida law is set to change the way schools can train employees to comply with Title IX.

School districts, colleges and universities are required to have at least one employee who is responsible for coordinating schools’ compliance with Title IX, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In higher education, it is not uncommon for Title IX coordinators to conduct training exercises dealing with concepts related to discrimination for employees and other people on campuses.

Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, told The News Service of Florida last month that many such trainings “focus on anti-bias content.”

“The purpose of these trainings is to sensitize the participants to how common racism and other forms of bigotry can be in academia, how to be allies to those impacted by bias, how to intervene in situations of hate speech or acts, and how to be part of efforts to make colleges more inclusive and diverse communities,” Sokolow, a lawyer, said.

But the types of training exercises Title IX coordinators can conduct may change when a new state law goes into effect next week.

The law (HB 7), passed by the state Legislature this spring and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, will restrict the way certain race-related issues can be taught in schools and workplace training sessions. The new law, set to take effect July 1, specifically targets training and instruction that would tell students and employees that they “unconsciously” discriminate.

The law was one of DeSantis' top legislative priorities this year, with the governor billing it as a way to combat critical race theory in the classroom and the workplace --- though the law does not specifically mention critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American institutions. DeSantis dubbed the legislation the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act.

The law could carry a hefty price tag for universities that violate it. A “substantiated violation” of restrictions in the law would make institutions ineligible for what is known as performance funding.

Performance funding can total tens of millions of dollars for individual universities. For example, in the 2021-22 school year, Florida Gulf Coast University was awarded $24.2 million in funds based on achieving a set of performance metrics.

The school recently scrapped a training exercise that likely would have violated the new law.

As FGCU is in the midst of searching for a successor to retiring university President Michael Martin, the university last month canceled a planned “anti-bias training” that was scheduled to be given to its Presidential Search Advisory Committee.

The training session initially was eyed for early-to-mid July. The university’s Title IX coordinator Precious Gunter, who was designated to administer the training, gave brief details to the committee during its inaugural meeting on April 13.

“We are going to do a full training at a later date, specifically surrounding unconscious and implicit bias. So, I won’t get into that too much today. But just know, you’ll get to see me one more time, and we’ll go through a presentation on implicit bias,” Gunter told the committee.

The same day, the News Service asked a university spokeswoman if the new law would impact the school’s ability to conduct the training. The spokeswoman referred the question to the state university system’s Board of Governors, which did not provide an answer.

When the FGCU search committee held a second meeting on May 23, the training had been removed from the panel’s schedule. Asked again if the anti-bias training was canceled because of the law, the university’s spokeswoman told the News Service that the training was offered by the search firm hired by FGCU and was removed for cost reasons.

“The anti-bias training was initially offered by AGB Search as a supplement to its services, and it would require an additional fee over and above the agreed upon contract cost. The university subsequently requested that training be removed from the timeline,” FGCU spokeswoman Pamela McCabe said in a May 26 email.

A copy of the university’s contract with AGB Search obtained by the News Service said that an anti-bias “workshop” would cost the university $3,000.

Meanwhile, the Board of Governors is slated during a June 30 meeting to consider the initial steps of adopting regulations designed to implement the new law. The rules, entitled “Prohibition of Discrimination in University Training or Instruction,” would spell out procedures for how to handle violations and complaints.

While the new law will almost certainly change how anti-bias exercises and similar training sessions can be conducted, Sokolow said institutions could still run training exercises that don’t run afoul of the statute.

“Outside of those forbidden areas, there is a ton of room to provide trainings on diversity and inclusion that can be very effective. So, nothing about the Florida law prevents diversity, equity, and inclusion training generally, but employers need to be careful to ensure that the trainings that are provided do not veer into topics that Florida has banned. There is much to be said and learned about racism/bigotry without having to address moral superiority or inferiority of any particular protected class of people, or to insist on the idea of inherent racism, guilt, or responsibility for historical hatred, slavery, and other acts of discrimination,” Sokolow said in an email.

Two federal lawsuits challenging the new law, filed by attorneys representing separate groups of individuals and businesses, are pending.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker this week heard arguments in the lawsuit filed by individuals, who include a university professor. Plaintiffs in the case alleged that the law will “chill discussions of race,” restricting teachers’ speech and students’ right to access information. The plaintiffs also contended the measure will restrict employers’ speech by cracking down on what training exercises employers can conduct.

Walker said he could issue a ruling this week on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to block the law.

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