Hillsborough School Board members earn human rights award for standing up to anti-Muslim pressure

12/07/12 Janelle Irwin
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Eleven people and one elected body were honored in Tampa this morning for furthering human rights in Hillsborough County. The breakfast coincided with the 40th anniversary of schools in the district being officially desegregated, prompting African-American students from two high schools to switch schools. Hillsborough County School Board member Doretha Edgecomb said even though integration was good in the long run, it still presented some immediate challenges for both students and teachers.

“And that, you know, it was in a sense, kind of a death, a loss that you feel – the same kind of emotion when you feel with the loss of someone you love and respect and that was kind of the paramount feeling that we had lost our identity as a school and as a community.”

African-American students from Middleton High School, now a middle school, had to adjust to integrating with white students from Hillsborough High School. But even though it was hard at first, retired teacher and coach Billy Reed said there were a lot of benefits.

“Over at Middleton we had used books. They never gave us new books and all of our equipment was second hand equipment and when I went to Hillsborough everything was new – new books, a ton of Bunsen burners. We had one at Middleton and in a science class at Hillsborough; every kid had a Bunsen burner. All these kind of things – it played out. The average kid – we didn’t know this until they was able to go to the school – and see the thing I like about it is those kids performed better at Hillsborough than they did at Middleton because they had more equipment.”

The days of segregation and forcing African-Americans to sit at the back of the bus are long gone, but new problems have surfaced. This year, the Hillsborough County School Board faced a hotly-debated battle about who should be allowed to speak in public schools. The matter came up after the Council on American-Islamic Relations director for the Tampa chapter spoke at a high school and some Christian groups had a problem with it. The school board was given the Human Rights Award because they didn’t cave to pressure led by former school board candidate Terry Kemple. Chair April Griffin said the board did what was best for students.

“This is a very, very diverse community and if we start picking out certain people based on either their religious background or their cultural or their race than we are not embracing the diversity of this community and that’s not what we’re about.”

Griffin’s colleague on the school board, Doretha Edgecomb, added that the best way to overcome prejudice and stereotypes is to make sure students are informed.

“And the best place to do that is under the guidance of well qualified and trained classroom teachers who bring all kinds of speakers in our classrooms so our students are prepared, that they have an opportunity to ask good questions and get good answers and if we hide or prevent them from having those kinds of experiences, we do a great injustice to our students.”

Most of the school board members were present at the breakfast ceremony to accept the award. Missing though was Stacy White. White was the only board member to advocate for banning religious speakers – namely Muslim speakers – from public schools. Edgecomb said it was possible White had a scheduling conflict, but that the board had moved past the issue.

“You know, I think we all have diverse opinions and that’s an important part of being a part of democratic society and a board and so we expect that we aren’t always going to agree on the same issues. But what he has done is he has accepted our position as a school board member and we are going to move forward. We have too much to do, too many things to accomplish and too many kids to educate to continue to dwell on something that we felt was right for our kids.”

The CAIR debate in Hillsborough schools highlights the human rights issues still present today. Ana Gomez, a 17-year-old student in the county, brought up an issue she had with a teacher who told racist jokes during class. Lopez declined to be interviewed, but school board member April Griffin joked that enough school board members were present to have a quorum and assured Gomez that the problem would be investigated.

“None of our students should have to endure that and our teachers should be a shining example of what we should be and how we should treat one another and that is completely unacceptable behavior if what she is saying is true. So, we will definitely be looking into it and there will be some follow up.”

Other elected officials were also honored during the awards breakfast including Hillsborough County Commission Kevin Beckner. Beckner is the first openly gay elected official in the county, but was awarded for his contributions to promoting diversity while on the commission.

“Well there’s some things that we can make a more inclusive human rights ordinance. I think that needs to be addressed. We just formed the Diversity Advocacy committee which for the first time is going to include Middle Eastern Americans as well as representatives from the LGBT community. So again, it’s not only just the laws that we pass, but it’s making sure that as we work with community groups that we include and make a more inclusive environment for everybody.”

Former Tampa mayor Dick Greco was inducted into the Human Rights Hall of Fame. He said it’s important to continue shining a spotlight on acceptance and integration.

“There’s nothing ever fine. It’s like planting a garden, if you don’t water it or fertilize it, it dies. We must sustain this great country and its ideals and its purposes.”

The Tampa/Hillsborough Human Rights Council that sponsors the annual award breakfast aims to further human rights through education. Mark Nash used to be chief of staff for Commissioner Kevin Beckner and is now the group’s president.

“A lot of the people that were on the front lines that lived through those historical events are still here today and we have the ability to hear their stories and understand what life was like for them at that time and how it has affected them today and it just allows us to learn. It allows us to learn about our past. Of course we’re living in some challenging times today and maybe there’s a hope that we can avoid a repeat of some of the mistakes that we made a long time ago.”

Next year will be the 40th award breakfast. Nash said the group hopes to have speakers that can help people understand more about the group’s two named awards – the Eddie Mitchell and Hank Warren Memorial Awards.

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