Although more than 30 residents wore red shirts to promote love and acceptance of one another, to the Collier County School Board, the shirts signaled one thing.
The board voted 4-1 Thursday to keep Challenge Day out of the public schools until it could do more research on both Challenge Day and other programs that promote anti-bullying behavior. Board Chairwoman Kathleen Curatolo was the sole dissenting vote.
The program, which seeks to stop bullying and create acceptance, already was put on hold in January until the district could review the program.
That decision is not likely to come before the start of the new school year. School Superintendent Ray Baker told board members the staff had too much on its plates through the summer to be researching programs.
“We want to meet the needs of the students, but we will not be able to do anything until next fall. We have a Legislature acting,” he said.
Board members became concerned after several residents appeared before them in January, concerned that children express deeply personal feelings in front of a group of other children and unqualified professionals.
Others complained about what they perceived as the program’s possible religious or cult-like undertones.
Some of those residents were back Thursday, expressing those concerns.
“We need data on this program,” said Dr. Frank Schwerin, the program’s most vocal detractor. “Why does this program need to be at a school? Why wouldn’t this program work at a community center or a place of worship? Why do we have to take students out of class to participate?”
But those in support of the program spoke for more than an hour about its benefits. They told the board they had received nothing but positive feedback about the program from students, parents and school officials.
“We have seen the programs in the past that ask us to notice, choose and act. This comes from a better place. There is peer support and the kids want to give it,” said Larry Mullins, a Challenge Day participant.
They argued that the program, which has been performed around the country and in three other Florida school districts, has made great strides in creating safer, more positive school environments.
“Ask the kids if they feel safe in school. The kids we talk to don’t,” said Joyce Jacobs, one of the organizers of Collier County’s Challenge Day. “Please do the right thing and keep this program in our schools during the school day.”
Staff from The Community School of Naples also showed up at the meeting to express their support for the program. They said the school, which is private and not under the jurisdiction of the board, will continue to host Challenge Days for their students.
The board listened to district recommendations for the continuation of the program, including bringing the program back to Golden Gate and Immokalee high schools, where three Challenge Days were held last year, as an after-school program or Saturday activity; have all volunteers screened in accordance with the Jessica Lunsford Act; and require Challenge Day organizers to open their books to a public accounting of funds.
Challenge Day supporters saw at least some of those recommendations as an end to the program. They said holding Challenge Day on Saturday would ensure at-risk children would not be able to attend due to transportation, work or family issues.
Still, several board members said they thought the program might do some harm, and that outweighed any benefits.
“My concerns remain. There are not professionals working with these students. There is the potential for harm,” said board member Linda Abbott. “I’m sorry I cannot support this.”
Board members Curatolo and Pat Carroll fully supported the efforts. Carroll said the program should at least be held at the schools on Saturdays, but voted for the workshop because Challenge Day would still be up for consideration.
“The only thing that would change my mind (about Challenge Day) is if we found evidence that a student was harmed. We haven’t found that,” she said. “Not doing a program for fear that it will hurt one person is outrageous.”
Curatolo said she voted against the motion because she supported the Challenge Day organizers’ grassroots efforts.
“I am disappointed in the responses of my colleagues,” she said. “Challenge Day might not be for everyone, but why are we not supporting something that has obviously worked for so many students?”