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After complaints, Hillsborough schools to limit outside speakers

TAMPA — In a move that responds to complaints about an Islamic organization, the Hillsborough County School District took a first step Tuesday toward regulating outside speakers in the classroom.

A brief set of guidelines offered by superintendent MaryEllen Elia asks teachers to look for speakers recommended by the district, consult with their principals and refrain from invitations to advocacy organizations.

The School Board will hold a workshop to discuss the issue in more detail, on a day not yet determined. Until then, a majority of board members agreed that Elia's guidelines can stand.

They did so over strong objections from member April Griffin, who said it was not Elia's place to draft policy. What's more, she said, a policy against advocacy groups would exclude many organizations including the PTA and the NAACP, not to mention groups that are regulars at the Great American Teach-In.

The discussion followed more than an hour of audience comments Tuesday — as well as earlier complaints — about the suitability of visits to classrooms from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Unlike the last two board meetings, when only speakers opposed to CAIR took to the lectern, Tuesday's crowd included Muslim-Americans and civil rights activists who defended CAIR and its executive director, Hassan Shibly.

"These are the kinds of people I would select as my neighbors, as my babysitters and as my friends," said Lois Price, a mother of two schoolteachers and a member of Friends of Human Rights, a Tampa organization.

Added Ghazi Ahmed, who lived in Yemen and Detroit before settling in Tampa: "I have three kids and they're going to grow up here. We have to work together, not attack each other."

Those opposed to CAIR were equally passionate. Some said they had nothing against Muslims, but said the group itself has links to terrorism — something Shibly has consistently denied.

Teacher Kelly Clem-Rickon, who was raised in the Mormon faith, wore red, the color of the anti-CAIR faction. She said she would be open to presentations from any religion, but not CAIR.

Others objected to any speaker who might favor Islamic sharia law. "I do not have hate in my heart," said Christina Latchford, a military mother. "But I do recognize an ideology that is damaging, and I wouldn't subject my children to it."

The controversy began late last year after Shibly, a lawyer and an imam, spoke at an advanced placement world history class at Steinbrenner High School.

It was not the first time the history teacher had invited members of his and other religious organizations. But it caught the notice of conservative activists.

Addressing the board as one of the final speakers, Shibly said he was astounded at so much misinformation about his organization. "I feel that I have to prove the world isn't flat," he said.

Terry Kemple, of the anti-CAIR Education Coalition, said he thought Elia's plan was a step in the right direction, but preferred something to more directly address the issue of what he called terrorist sympathizers in the classroom.

Shibly said he was disappointed by the move — not necessarily because of the guidelines, but because he said they were motivated by xenophobia. Of the people who spoke against CAIR, he said, "They're not going to be happy with anyone."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

After complaints, Hillsborough schools to limit outside speakers 02/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 12:00am]
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