TAMPA — Add breast-feeding to the list of political controversies on the Hillsborough County School Board's agenda.
On Tuesday, parents complained of a simmering problem at Bellamy Elementary, where a mother last month was asked to nurse her 2-year-old daughter in private, rather than in the school lobby. And teachers hotly defended the need to shield students from the sight.
"The office is in a public area where students frequently pass through," said fourth-grade teacher Shannon Lehmann. "She does not have the right to expose other children to her agenda."
Melissa Taylor, a certified lactation counselor, said she was nursing her daughter in the lobby of the school on April 28 while waiting for her 4-year-old, who came twice weekly for speech therapy. A staff member asked her to come to principal Lynn Rattray's office.
"The principal told me it was not appropriate for me to be breast-feeding in the office, and that I could either come when no students were there or go to a private location," Taylor recalled. "I was pretty shocked."
The issue escalated from there, with the mother insisting on her right under Florida law to breast-feed in public, and district officials maintaining they could enforce reasonable limits.
Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said the law permits mothers to nurse their children in public. But schools are also charged with maximizing education and maintaining order.
"I don't think it means people can stop in a crosswalk to breast-feed," he said, adding that the school had offered Taylor the use of the principal's office.
Taylor said she never heard that offer, and continued to nurse her child on subsequent visits.
That created a problem on the day teacher Sharon Albanese took her fourth-grade class through the lobby to the library.
"I had to physically stand between the breast-feeding mom and the class, so as not to create a major disruption," she said.
Other parents said the district was making a big deal about nothing.
"I try to be as discreet as I can," said Mary Wang, as her infant grabbed at the microphone in front of her. "We should be proud that God designed us this way."
Board members — who also faced a line of speakers ready to challenge them on the controversy of religious days in the school calendar — did not want to tackle the issue, asking staff to find a solution.
"I see a lot of love and compassion in this room," said Jennifer Faliero. "I'm not inclined to take up a (new) policy at this time."
"Let's try to work together," agreed member Candy Olson.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.