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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Talk, inside and outside the Hillsborough board room, about Christian groups

7

September

Controversy surrounding Hillsborough school evangelist David Gaskill is not going away -- and neither is he.

Gaskill, whose Fellowship of Christian Athletes activities were suspended last year because of problems with his security clearance and prolific Facebook posts about his preaching, is back at five public high schools, trying to adhere to school district policies but stirring up church-and-state questions along the way.

School Board chairwoman April Griffin said during Tuesday's board meeting that she was not happy with the pass Gaskill got after he showed up on Aug. 13 at a Wharton Athletic Booster car wash, handed out bottles of Gatorade and invited about 20 young people to pray.

Here is some of what he said on his Facebook post:

"I knew the players would be working hard cause the temperature was in the high 90's and the car-wash was from 11-3 pm in the dead heat so I surprised them with a cooler of ice cold gatorades ...

I got caught up with the coaches and parents as the kids chugged their drinks haha, and then I asked, "Would anyone like to pray?""

A letter from Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez -- who was not at Tuesday's meeting -- said this about the situation: "We believe the Wharton Athletic Booster organization and the FCA and its affiliates have not jeopardized district policy or law as this was an event which occurred outside the District parameters."

It was written by school district attorney Jeff Gibson, who was in the lobby Tuesday while a spirited discussion took place about the whole situation.

Inside the board room, Griffin read from Section 9211 of the school district policy manual about parent organizations, booster clubs and volunteer organizations: "Each volunteer organization shall work within the appropriate school setting and in cooperation with the principal and other staff members and shall abide by the policies of the Board."

While the car wash happened off school grounds, the policy goes on to say that school district procedures "shall require that each group's fund-raising activities are in compliance with applicable Board policies."

Section 9210, which Griffin did not read, says booster and PTA clubs, "in using the name of the District or its schools and in organizing a group whose identity derives from a school of this District, parental organizations thereby share responsibility with this Board for the welfare of participating students." It goes on to say that "the Board relies upon approved organizations to operate in a manner consistent with the District's mission and vision and reserves the right to withdraw sponsorship from organizations."

So at what point does the school or district bear responsibility for things that happen at a weekend, off-grounds fundraiser? That's the discussion Griffin said she wants to continue with Eakins, and in a public setting.

Gaskill, for his part, said Wednesday that he's tired of reading about himself in the newspaper.

Aside from that, he welcomes the ongoing training and any chance to clarify the do's and don't's with district officials. "I still have a lot of questions, and I asked if I could meet them again within next couple of weeks," he said. "I want to make sure everything is crystal clear."

For example: District officials say adult visitors should not regularly attend student-led events such as the FCA huddles. "But nobody knows what regular is," he said. "Is it every day? Once a week? Once a month?"

He said he now finds himself informing coaches and other FCA employees about the guidelines."I'm making sure people are adhering to the rules because I want our faith based groups in the schools. I don't want anybody to stop it for a technicality."

"It was explained to me that if we were asked by an FCA student, we could pray," he said. "They said the student must initiate the prayer. We didn't know that. If a student says, 'can you pray for me,' I can."

But he is finding plenty of coaches who are not well informed. "I don't want coaches to be fired for praying with the kids," he said.

Then there is the point of view by district leaders who want to make sure Christian organizations feel welcome in the schools, and fear the backlash might scare them off.

Board member Melissa Snively, knowing Griffin would talk about the issue during her comments at the end of Tuesday's meeting, beat her to the punch.

"I want to make sure that wherever we draw that line, we're not discouraging faith-based organizations and religious organizations from participating and helping our students and helping at our schools," she said. "Because we need every volunteer in every organization, faith based or not, to help us raise our children and raise our students."

Nor is Superintendent Jeff Eakins backing down from his partnerships with community organizations, including religious groups.

Despite the existence of a grant-funded Principal Pipeline and other resources to train school leaders, Hillsborough has once again invited Idlewild Baptist Church to organize voluntary training sessions for principals and assistant principals. The first one is Sept. 26.

Eakins also said more than a half-dozen Christian organizations have received district training and signed assurances that they will not violate district policy on proselytizing. These include First Priority, Huddle Touch, FCA, Legacy, Young Life and Good News.

 

[Last modified: Thursday, September 8, 2016 5:54pm]

    

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