Collier School Board works out details of diversity committee resurrected after ‘kick a Jew day’

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— An outraged public led to the formation of a committee to better understand diversity.

But the Collier County School District still has some work to do to make the committee effective.

That was the consensus after the Collier County School Board received the first draft of a diversity committee mission and purpose last week.

The Collier County School Board voted 4 to 1 in December to reinstate the district’s diversity committee. Board member Steve Donovan was the lone dissenting vote.

The Board’s decision came a few weeks after what became known as kick a Jew day, when a student complained of being kicked because she was Jewish and several North Naples Middle School students were suspended for kicking other students based on differences.

Community members were outraged over the incident and the board elected to reinstate the diversity committee in hopes of promoting tolerance.

But before a committee is formed, some decisions must be made.

“The purpose of the Diversity Committee is to encourage the values of (a) tolerance for others; (b) respect for diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds in District schools and the community at large; and (c) the importance of honoring pluralism and human uniqueness in District schools and programs to enhance civic responsibility,” according to the committee’s purpose and goals, which were created by District Counsel Jon Fishbane and Chief Administrative Officer Mary Ann Gemmill. “As part of this purpose of encouraging a core value system for honoring diversity, the Committee will engage in a community conversation and collect data to explore the issues of what unites us and how a respect for diversity will contribute to uniting us.”

The committee will present findings to the School Board and will help the district plan in the area of collaborative communications.

The purpose and goals also require the committee to work to enhance district courses and programs to foster a greater understanding of diversity. Fishbane and Gemmill recommended that the findings and recommendations be shared not only with the School Board, but with principals, instructional personnel and non-instructional employees.

“The Committee will also seek in-put from community groups to provide the District with ways to better understand how to help minority students perform better,” according to the document.

When community groups looked at the document, they didn’t like much about what they saw at all.

Robin Birnhak, director of public policy for the Greater Naples branch of the American Association of University Women, said the district’s first attempt “lacks clarity.”

“As a guide, it will surely cause the committee to lose its way,” she said. “There are too many broad generalities.”

Birnhak said she also did not like limiting the diversity to issues of “race, culture and religion.” She said the district should include all of the issues presented in the district’s zero tolerance policy, which includes things such as sex, age and marital status.

Birnhak said the diversity committee needs to be the one to establish the goals for the committee and report those goals to the School Board for further discussion.

Board Vice Chairwoman Julie Sprague, who initiated the return of the diversity committee, was also troubled by the district’s lack of community input on the matter.

“I would like to see community members involved,” she said. “I would like to get their input on the mission and goals.”

Board Chairwoman Kathleen Curatolo said she agreed that the committee should have input on its goals but said the district should come up with the committee’s mission.

“I feel it is imperative that this committee aligns with our strategic planning process,” she said. “The goals can be designed with those involved in the committee.”

Superintendent Dennis Thompson said the School Board had to decide if it was going to make the committee a School Board subcommittee or a district committee. If it was a board subcommittee, the board would have to solicit nominations and a super majority of board members would have to approve the members. If the board chose a district committee, Thompson said, the district would have more latitude on who could participate and the district could invite local organizations to be part of the discussion.

Board members agreed that a district committee was the best choice. Sprague said she would support it as long as the district ensured community members were on the committee.

Connect with Collier education reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers.

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