Eakins: All groups that help kids get my support
Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendant Jeff Eakins took some heat after his remarks last week at the annual meeting of First Priority Tampa Bay, an organization that seeks to instill "the hope of Christ in every student" -- sometimes serving free pizza along the way.
His response: All groups that help students get the same recognition and encouragement.
While not challenging the accuracy of the Times' Jan. 12 story, Eakins said Tuesday that "what I felt was, it didn't give the context of all my presentations that I've been making." He's made that point during meetings this week with critics of church involvement in the schools, reassuring them that "this isn't about just singling out one group, one faith-based organization and saying, 'you're the ones I support.'"
Instead, he said, organizations such as the Positive Coaching Alliance and the Boys and Girls Club get similar presentations, focused largely on an icon the district is using to illustrate its eight core values. "I bring the icon and I talk to all the organizations, faith based and nonfaith based, about how the organization is aligning, about how the organization is supporting us, about, 'here's what you can do to support the culture that we're trying to create for our kids,'" he said.
In his Jan. 12 remarks, which can be heard here, Eakins referred to First Priority five times as a "student-led" organization. He repeated that phrase later when asked if he was concerned about Constitutional challenges. He explained that federal law protects student-led clubs in middle and high schools. Skeptics, however, point to the considerable involvement of adults in First Priority, not to mention the free pizza.
The Atheists of Florida, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the American Civil Liberties Union all contacted Eakins late last year with concerns about another organization -- Idlewild Baptist Church, which is involved in voluntary principal training.
After the Times reported on Eakins' remarks to First Priority, School Board chairwoman April Griffin said she'll convene a multi-faith meeting to discuss the issue, and will likely ask Eakins for more controls on religious activity in the schools. Jim Porter, the board's attorney, said Tuesday that he and district officials are taking inventory of church-school relationships and scrutinizing them to make sure they are appropriate.
"We're taking this very seriously," he said.