Thursday, July 28, 2005

What Are The Secret Lives Of Sponges?

It looks like there's yet another dust-up involving a certain video featuring SpongeBob SquarePants, (and lots of other cartoon characters) this time in, of all places, South Florida:
Gay rights activists and members of the Anti-Defamation League crammed into a Broward County School Board meeting Tuesday to confront the district about comments its Diversity Committee members made about a children's video.

"There were terrible, ugly, homophobic things said in that committee," said Stratton Pollitzer of Equality Florida, a civil rights group. "That can't be allowed to stand."

Pollitzer helped organize South Florida's lesbian and gay community when he heard some committee members worried the "We Are Family" video would lead to conversations about same-sex couples.

Superintendent Frank Till won't budge from his decision to keep it out of classrooms, in part because it duplicates existing diversity programs. But the ADL, which distributed the video to thousands of schools throughout the country this year, plans to work with the School Board to make it acceptable for viewing.

In the meantime, Pollitzer said the district needs to show that it doesn't approve of anti-gay comments.

"We must speak out," he told the board. "If we don't, then bigotry would go unchallenged in Broward County."

Outside, Margaret Hostetter of Davie said she wanted to make a speech at the meeting, but there were too many people. Hostetter, a former Diversity Committee member, said she was glad the video got rejected.

"It's inappropriate for a child in pre-K to be introduced to the idea that a family could be any group that loves each other," she said. "It isn't appropriate."

The video never mentions homosexuality.

Through most of it, Kermit the Frog, SpongeBob SquarePants, Barney and other children's characters sing We are Family.

During Tuesday's meeting, community leaders stepped forward one-by-one to stare down board members and ask why the video was rejected.

"Teaching people to value diversity and respect people ... only enforces democracy," said Dennis Kainen of the ADL. "There's no subliminal message, as was alleged."

"Please allow this wonderful tape to be allowed in our schools," said Sharon Saphier-Grad, a former teacher and parent. "We are all part of the human family."

More than 70 people came to Tuesday's meeting, some spilling into a room next door, where they debated whether children should be introduced to homosexuality in school.

Diversity Committee Chairman Bill Rettinger said members had concerns about the video before voting 10-7 not to recommend it. For instance, he said, they worried it might teach children to be friendly with strangers.

"We spoke about it for hours," Rettinger said. "It was a very divisive issue."

Comments about the video by Diversity Committee member and conservative radio host Steve Kane have drawn the biggest reaction. Kane said he thought the video was a "foot in the door" for gays to push their message in the school system.

"This is America. Whatever parents want to do in their home is fine," Kane said in a telephone interview. "I've done bizarre and perverse things in my life. But teaching it to kids K-through-sixth [grade] in school is a different matter."

Marty Rubenstein, the School Board member who appointed Kane, said he regretted any comments Kane and others made that gays and lesbians considered offensive.

Afterward, he told reporters that he might remove Kane from the committee.

"Kane has done more for kids in Broward County than a lot of people, but he still says stupid things sometimes," he said. "What do you do?"
If I were a parent or teacher who was residing in South Florida, I would be most interested in knowing exactly what sub-section of the No Child Left Behind Act is addressed by this video and its accompanying curriculum. I would want to know this, because South Florida's schools in general, and Broward County in particular, (here and here) have some very daunting challenges to overcome in order to meet their federally and state-mandated objectives under the law's prescribed time limits.

The controversy over this video and all the attention on the teaching of diversity is a distraction from the much more important business at hand, which is increasing the levels of student proficiency in the core academic areas in obedience to the law that all elected officials (including school board members) have sworn to uphold.

Maybe these districts should worry about compliance with state and federal law now, and worry about the teaching of diversity later. The folks down in Broward County Florida need to get their priorities in order.

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