Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

School Board workshop takes closer look at guest speakers

TAMPA — Changing, tweaking or even reaffirming how the Hillsborough County schools use outside speakers will require at least one public hearing — including public comments.

That's what School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said Friday at a workshop prompted by backlash over a Muslim leader's visit to a high school world history class.

It was not the result chairwoman Candy Olson wanted when she presented a brief description of the process as it now exists: Teachers invite speakers, sometimes with the help of their principals, and students learn from the experience.

But, although Olson asked her fellow board members simply to acknowledge the practice, Gonzalez said the document looked like policy, and the elected board could not sanction it without a formal hearing.

"We will look at the law," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. "And then we will set up a timetable."

In the meantime teachers can still invite speakers. Elia has asked that they consult with principals and curriculum supervisors, and avoid inviting advocacy groups.

The board, though unable to vote Friday, was deeply divided in its discussion of the issue, which has brought dozens of angry speakers to its Tuesday meetings. Member Stacy White took issue with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose executive director Hassan Shibly spoke at Steinbrenner High School in November. Critics of CAIR say its ranks include terrorist sympathizers, while the organization insists it promotes mutual understanding and protects Muslims' civil rights.

"CAIR has a cloud of suspicion and controversy lingering over it," White said. He said the district must use caution when it comes to religion, and speakers should have proper credentials. He said he would not support Olson's document if it came to a vote.

On the other end of the spectrum, member April Griffin said the discourse of recent months — in which some speakers have disparaged the entire religion of Islam — is "absolutely disgusting," and the board should not give in to pressure from conservative activists such as David Caton and Terry Kemple.

"I resent having this conversation in the first place," Griffin said. "I do not think we need a policy. My goal right now is to keep things the way they are."

Others said they trust the judgment of teachers and principals. Member Susan Valdes agreed, but added that they must also look out for student safety.

The workshop, which did not allow public comment, did include statements from principals and assistant principals whose schools have benefited from speakers.

Steinbrenner principal Brenda Grasso said guests enhance the teaching process. "Any time we can make the curriculum or instruction more relevant, we need to," she said.

What's more, she said, teachers are always available to guide the lesson and end it if necessary. "Our employee is there," she said. "They are that fail-safe piece in the classroom."

The workshop opened with a question-and-answer session with Austin Ransdell, 16, a sophomore who was at Steinbrenner when Shibly spoke.

As Austin described the lesson, Shibly spoke of the prophet Mohammed and the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the basic principles of the religion. "We asked him about his beard and about the hat he wore," said Austin, whose mother sat beside him.

Questioned by the board, he said the material was similar to what they had already learned. But coming from a practitioner, "It was a little more engaging, if you will."

He said he never felt indoctrinated. But he also said two things that disturbed White: Shibly spoke about anti-Muslim stereotypes, and Austin's class has not met with representatives of other religions.

Kemple, who was in the audience, said afterwards that hundreds will attend the upcoming hearings. He called the board members arrogant. "They feel they know more than the people of the community know," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or

The current policy, as presented Friday

Hillsborough School Board Chairwoman Candy Olson distributed this statement, which likely requires public hearings and a vote:

"Guest speakers can be a valuable extension of instruction. As with any lesson, teachers carefully consider whether a guest speaker has the appropriate experience or credentials to help students learn about the topic. Speakers should not advocate, but should educate and inform.

"Members of the district staff and SERVE may be resources for teachers and can, upon request, recommend speakers if teachers wish. Teachers may also consult with their principal and other school-level staff.

"Teachers work with guest speakers to establish an outline of the presentation, including the teacher's desired outcomes for the presentation and its alignment with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and other curriculum requirements. Teachers remain in the classroom.

"Tapping into the resources of our community enhances the educational experiences of our students and enables teachers to bring lessons alive with guests who bring valuable knowledge, skills or experiences to our students."

School Board workshop takes closer look at guest speakers 03/30/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 30, 2012 11:53pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pinellas construction licensing board needs to be fixed. But how?

    Local Government

    LARGO –– Everyone agrees that the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board needs to be reformed. But no one agrees on how to do it.

    Rodney Fischer, former executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board Rodney, at a February meeting. His management of the agency was criticized by an inspector general's report. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  2. Sue Carlton: Job or family when a hurricane's coming — a very Florida conundrum


    It must seem as foreign to Northerners as shoveling snow is to those of us raised in the Sunshine State: The very-Florida conundrum of having to choose between work and family — between paycheck and personal safety — when a hurricane comes.

    A hurricane helps the rest of us acknowledge the police officers, paramedics, hospital personnel, public works employees and others who stay on the job despite the storm. 
  3. After Tampa concert, Arcade Fire members party, preach politics at Crowbar


    After waiting more than a decade for Arcade Fire’s first appearance in Tampa, fans didn’t have to wait long for their second.

    DJ Windows 98, a.k.a. singer Win Butler of Arcade Fire, performed at a "Disco Town Hall" at Crowbar following the band's concert at the USF Sun Dome on Sept. 22, 2017.
  4. Review: Arcade Fire open hearts, play with passion at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa


    Gloves off, hearts open and disco balls glittering, Arcade Fire scaled the stage for the first time ever in Tampa, pouncing and flailing and performing with all the passion that’s made them one of the world’s most celebrated rock bands this century.

    Arcade Fire performed at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa on Sept. 22, 2017.
  5. Lightning's Steven Stamkos looks close to top form in first game since November

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — The wait felt like forever for Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, having gone 10 months without playing in a game.

    A scramble in front of the Lightning goal has Matthew Peca, far left, and Erik Cernak, middle, helping out goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the third period of a 3-1 win against the Predators. Vasilevskiy, who made 29 saves, was “exceptional,” coach Jon Cooper says.