The Broward County School Board stunned a passionately divided audience Tuesday by refusing to formalize an existing agreement GLSEN on training educators to deal with LGBT students.
The following is an excerpt from an article printed in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Any opinions either stated or suggested are not necessarily those of GLSEN or its members.
By Bill Hirschman, Education Writer
The Broward County School Board stunned a passionately divided audience Tuesday by refusing to formalize an existing agreement with a gay and lesbian organization that trains educators to deal with homosexual students.
At the same meeting, the district settled a lawsuit with the Boy Scouts' South Florida Council over its ban on gay members, approving a $190,000 payment to the organization for legal expenses. The move closed the controversy that put Broward in the national spotlight over discrimination against gays vs. equal access to public buildings.
In their contract refusal, board members voted 5-3 to reject a partnership with the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network. During nearly 1 1/2 hours of debate, the board heard from 16 citizens who either supported or opposed the group, which provides sensitivity training and materials to help educators deal with gay students, heterosexual students and students wondering about sexuality.
Currently, the network helps staff members and teachers identify what constitutes harassment of students because of real or perceived sexual orientation.
It also provides literature, advice and training to guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists who work directly with students, as well as advisers to Gay/Straight Alliance Clubs in the schools.
What it doesn't do is provide any direct advice or material or lesson plans to students, said Maria de la Rodriguez, staff liaison with the school district's Diversity Committee.
"What are the materials given to students? None. Is this training mandatory for students? It isn't given to students," she said.
Several board members wanted a closer look at the program before endorsing it.
"I don't think there's any question that we have to teach tolerance," board member Stephanie Kraft said. "There's no better example than what's going on in the world right now. But we need more information on what kind of training this is, who's exactly involved."
Most vehemently opposed to the deal was Judie Budnick, who reaffirmed her belief in a need for the district to teach tolerance.
"We need to treat all our people with tolerance ... whether we agree with them or not ... But this is not about tolerance, but about pointing out our differences."
Supporters were furious with their colleagues.
"If this board does not want to move forward on this [for that reason], then we have to pull back from every agreement we have with special interests, and it can begin with the NAACP and end with Hispanic Unity," said Lois Wexler, who supported the partnership along with board members Beverly Gallagher and Bob Parks.
The item attracted a large crowd after conservative radio personality Steve Kane railed against the issue on his program Tuesday morning. E-mails, faxes and telephone calls inundated board members all day.
Among the protests were several death threats, board members said. As a result three times the usual detail of armed security officers guarded the meeting room.
A crowd gathered when the meeting began at 1 p.m. and grew throughout the afternoon. But the numbers dwindled as the session chugged on past the dinner hour.
When the issue was finally debated at 7:30 p.m., five people spoke against the partnership and 11 spoke in favor of it, including activists, former students, educators and parents of gay children.
Kane told the board that the issue was not homosexuality or tolerance, but the network as "a hard-core activist organization with a political agenda" of promoting gay rights.
But the majority of speakers supported the alliance.
Tolerance over sexual orientation figured in two other major issues Tuesday.
With virtually no public discussion, the constitutional battle between the School Board and the Boy Scouts ended when the board approved an out-of-court settlement.
The groups, each claiming the moral high ground, began wrestling in September 2000 over the Scouts' national policy barring gay members and leaders.
Superintendent Frank Till said the policy violated the district's contract allowing Scouts to meet in schools for free, because the agreement forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Scout Executive Jeffrie Herrmann countered that the district could not bar a group from using facilities based on its beliefs. He asserted every organization must be given the same access.
The dispute became more complicated when district officials discovered thousands of groups were charged widely different rates.
Under the policy approved at a first reading last month, all nonprofit groups such as the Scouts would pay $10 per weekday meeting per organization at each school, capped at $100. But Wexler and Paul Eichner complained that the district cannot subsidize any organization, when it is faced with cutting educational programs because of a budget shortfall from the Legislature.
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