TAMPA — With a slip of paper and no vote, Hillsborough County school officials tried Tuesday to end a monthslong controversy about guest speakers in the classrooms.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia gave the School Board a brief set of staff instructions: "Teachers should carefully consider whether a guest speaker has the appropriate experience or credentials to promote a knowledgeable discussion, which helps students learn about the topic," the document said.
It asked teachers to notify their principals and work with speakers on their outlines. It reminded them that when it comes to the topic of religion, they must safeguard First Amendment protections against religious pressure.
In other words: Teachers should exercise caution. But there are no new restrictions on whom they can invite to class.
"I consider this a victory for our whole community," said Hassan Shibly, a lawyer and Muslim prayer leader whose appearance at a Steinbrenner High School history class brought the issue to the board's attention in January.
Critics of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, where Shibly is the Tampa director, came to School Board meetings by the dozens.
Some objected to CAIR, which was targeted but not indicted in a federal investigation that resulted in the conviction of a pro-Hamas fundraising group. Others said they feared Islamic leaders were trying to subvert the Constitution and impose sharia law.
But the crowd Tuesday consisted primarily of Shibly's supporters. They dressed in red — the color usually worn by anti-CAIR speakers to board meetings.
"Eliminating religious speakers will limit children's life experiences," said Chaikirah Johnson, who has a daughter at Blake High School. "Would you censor her, or tell her not to come to class or come to your public school, because she's Muslim?"
Terry Kemple, a leader in the anti-CAIR movement and a candidate for School Board, jokingly thanked the pro-CAIR speakers for wearing red.
Then he blasted the board for failing to thoroughly investigate the circumstances of Shibly's visit to Steinbrenner, and for disregarding complaints he and his supporters had raised.
"Representatives of an organization that has been linked to terrorism in a federal trial have been allowed into our classrooms to indoctrinate our children about the misconceptions about Muslims and CAIR's civil rights work," he said, asking for a policy to ban such a group.
Coming at the end of a long meeting, the matter got only a brief board discussion.
Member Stacy White, who has called for tighter regulation of speakers, thought the guidelines should impose limits on advocacy groups. But other board members praised Elia's work.
"No one is denying that terrorists wish us ill," said chairwoman Candy Olson. "And we don't want them in our schools. The issue is about how to keep our children safe while providing the best possible education."
Earlier in the meeting, board members spoke briefly about Urban Teaching Academy, the magnet program that is struggling to honor a promise to give its first class of qualified graduates scholarships to college.
Elia reiterated that she is working with the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College and the nonprofit Hillsborough Education Foundation to arrange the scholarships.
At last count, she said 25 students were affected, although some may no longer wish to attend college and return as inner-city teachers, which is a requirement for the grants.
Elia said she is looking at each student's case and working toward a solution.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]