WESLEY CHAPEL — Sitting at his computer at Guantanamo Bay, Daniel Eller decided to check his daughter Coralia's advanced placement summer reading assignment from Wiregrass Ranch High School.
The retired Army sergeant turned military contractor couldn't have been more upset with the selections. They included the prize-winning book of short stories The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and the song lyrics of What's Going On by Marvin Gaye and War by Edwin Starr.
"The themes are all antiwar," said Eller, 55, who has served in Iraq, Panama and about a dozen other countries. "Even worse, they give the kids the impression that nothing is worth fighting for. That is just completely wrong."
The assignment is an AP-recommended lesson that Wiregrass Ranch teachers received at an AP seminar and decided to use.
Disturbed that the assignment offered no counterpoint, Eller complained to principal Ray Bonti.
"Mr. Bonti, bottom line is that I have a very low tolerance level for those sneaking in indoctrination in the disguise of 'approved' teaching material," Eller wrote to the principal. "I am in fact 'offended' that my school allows this to take place. You put me in a position to either have my very advanced and gifted child not do the 'required' reading and 'required' essays and suffer the consequences in order to not (be) indoctrinated with a message that is against everything that I have risked my life for over the past 30 years."
He asked for a more inclusive reading and writing assignment that offers other points of view.
Bonti quickly set up a phone conversation with Eller to deal with what he saw as a touchy situation. He said he's definitely promilitary, noting the Secretary of Defense recently recognized him as a "Patriotic Employer" by supporting employees' participation in the National Guard and the Reserves. He did not want to come across as dismissive of Eller's views in any way.
So they talked.
Bonti acknowledged Eller's point, to a degree. He offered Coralia an alternate assignment, and also had the AP language and composition teachers add more material to the original assignment, including the lyrics of the highly patriotic Ballad of the Green Berets.
Coralia, a 16-year-old rising junior, said she was willing to do the work. She was, in fact, somewhat mortified that her dad had instigated a battle with her school, where she wants to do well and fit in.
"My initial reaction when I heard my dad was complaining was like a punch to the stomach," she said via email. "I was surprised and a bit irritated that he was taking it this far! I did ask him to stop."
But Eller did not stop.
He didn't accept the idea of a separate assignment, suggesting his daughter wouldn't be able to participate in classroom discussions and activities in that scenario. And the additional materials did not impress Eller, who saw the slant of the assignment as still evident.
He proposed adding The Killing Fields to the selections, as one example to show how lives change because of war and ideology — an offer that wasn't taken.
"I can't see how anyone could look at this material and not see it as … influencing to be antiwar," Eller said.
After what he has seen, it seemed obvious. During his years of service, Eller did stints in Afghanistan, Kuwait and throughout Central America. Part of his work included assisting other countries' armies in psychological operations to improve their image.
"I see my own public school doing the same thing I was seeing overseas, to influence others," he said.
Unable to win the school over to his point of view, Eller next contacted veterans groups, School Board members and lawmakers, upping the ante on the dispute.
School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley applauded Eller's activism and interest.
"The more involved parents are, the better off our schools are," Hurley said. "He has every right to question what we are doing. He is correct to bring up something he doesn't like."
The district must follow its policies and procedures for challenged instructional materials, she added. Eller took the appropriate first step in seeking redress with the principal.
If still dissatisfied, she said, his next act would be to file a formal complaint that would require a committee of educators and parents to review the materials.
Eller said he would like to do so, although he worried that the distance and the time constraints might make that difficult.
"I'm not sure how I can meet all of the requirements," he said via email. "Also, by the time I got all of this done, all of the kids would have completed the assignment and the damage would be a completed action. I think the best that can be done is to shame them into doing the right thing."
Bonti suggested that whatever the outcome, the assignment is one of hundreds that students will complete during the school year. That gives the class plenty of time to explore other points of view, he said.
"I think everything gets balanced out in the long run," Bonti said.
Meanwhile, Coralia waits.
She'd like to do the work and get it completed, "since it is a grade." But at the same time, she sees her dad's side, too.
"In regards to the original assignment, I saw that the content of the readings ARE one-sided. For an AP assignment, I expected to see something with dual perspectives in order to allow students to determine their own views," she said via email.
The altered assignment did little to fix this, Coralia contended. "Hopefully all this (the article, the exposure …) will change something, if anything, so I can move on with my summer!"
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.