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FUROR A CIVICS LESSON FOR ALL

President Obama's upcoming speech to children tests parents, students and schools.

Charles Geiniman acknowledges he didn't vote for President Barack Obama.

But the father of a Springstead High School junior says he would also oppose George W. Bush or John McCain if they wanted to beam a message into America's classrooms.

"It's not the proper venue," Geiniman said. "Politics is important, but it doesn't need to be brought into the classroom. I would like to see where in the Constitution this is even remotely his responsibility."

School districts throughout the country have received calls and e-mails from parents with Geiniman's opinion about Obama's plan to address the nation's schoolchildren. White House officials insist the purpose of the back-to-school speech, slated to air at noon Tuesday via Webcast and C-SPAN, is to encourage students to "work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning."

Critics and doubters worry that Obama will use the address to indoctrinate students and burnish his political image.

The correspondence from concerned parents started coming to the Hernando school district office Thursday, said interim superintendent Sonya Jackson. She estimates about 15 calls and said she had not counted the e-mails. A request to the district for the e-mails turned up four.

"I don't want my grandchild expose(d) to the Obama study plan," read one message from a William K. "Keep Big Brother out of the classroom. Political guidance will be provided by my grandchild's parents."

"This is nothing but political propaganda, no matter the content," read another message, the writer of which closed with a quote from Adolf Hitler: "He alone who owns the youth, gains the future."

Officials in Tampa Bay-area districts and throughout the state are giving students the chance to opt out of Obama's address. In Hernando, though, families essentially have to opt in.

Jackson sent an e-mail to principals Thursday asking them to send home a permission slip. If students do not bring in the slip, they can't watch the speech and will be assigned another activity.

"That way we're covered," Jackson said.

That school officials feel the need to cover themselves for students to watch the president is baffling to some principals, teachers, parents and students.

"It's a head-scratcher," said Rick Markford, principal at West Hernando Middle School, where the speech will be shown to eighth-graders whose parents approve. "It puzzles me that a parent would not want their child to hear our president, like him or not, talk about the importance of education."

Jeff Fiffie, parent of a West Hernando eighth-grader, said he will sign the permission slip and trusts the president.

"Whatever he's saying is going to be beneficial for their future," Fiffie said.

Alexandra Cario, a 17-year-old senior and student government secretary at Central High School, called the controversy "a little bit ridiculous."

"He's talking about staying in school and going after your goals and having high expectations, and I feel like that's something that every kid should hear," Cario said.

Tiffany Faulkingham, also 17 and a senior at Central, said she can't help but feel the controversy may be at least partially rooted in race.

"He's our first black president, and a lot of people still don't like that," said Faulkingham, treasurer for Central's student government. "If you have to blindfold yourself and listen to what he says, do that."

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Schools are not required to watch the speech, and some are opting not to, Jackson said.

Joe Clifford, principal at J.D. Floyd K-8 in Spring Hill, said most grades will likely view the speech at his school. He said he's hopeful parents will allow their children to hear from Obama.

"We're going to watch it here because he's addressing the children on the importance of education," he said. "He's the president, and I trust him. But we're going to respect parents' wishes and abide by them."

At Nature Coast Technical High School, the speech will be taped and incorporated into lessons starting Wednesday "to make it truly a teachable moment for the students," said principal Toni-Ann Noyes. Letters will go out Tuesday requesting permission to participate from parents. Noyes said she hopes to include a transcript of the address in that letter.

"I just want to make sure our parents are well informed before we do something," Noyes said.

At Central, the speech will be taped and shown during the last period, said Alan Solomon, an American history teacher.

"We need to let kids have all different types of information to make value judgments on their own," Solomon said. "If we deny the kids the right to do that now because we're scared some political message will be slipped through, we're denying the causes that are the reasons for this country to exist."

Cy Wingrove, chairman of the Hernando Democratic Executive Committee, is, of course, an Obama supporter. But the Brooksville retiree, who previously served as principal at Powell Middle School in Spring Hill, said he also looks at the issue as a former educator.

"If either one of the President Bushes said, 'Wingrove, I'm coming to your school for a speech,' I would have died to make it happen," he said. "I don't think they would do anything to hurt a child or their position, and I don't think Obama will, either."

He hinted that parents should give their kids more credit.

"As principal at Powell, I think there were kids there who were more politically astute than their parents," he said. "They were willing to listen and make up their own minds."

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The local Republican Party stopped short of discouraging parents from allowing children to watch the address.

But in a statement issued Thursday, the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee suggests parents debrief their kids come dinner time.

"We are encouraging parents of these children to discuss at the dinner table that evening what was said and how it affects their lives and family," the statement reads. "We are also encouraging parents to alert your school administrator if you believe an unwanted political message was, or is, being disseminated to your children."

That's what worries Geiniman, the Springstead High parent: the talking points that might come up after the television is turned off.

"You can have a teacher that has an agenda," he said. "They could be giving information that they should not be."

A sign that the issue has become about politics rather than a stay-in-school message from the highest elected official in the land: Wider Horizons, a private school in Spring Hill, won't be showing the speech.

"Anything that comes up with political implications, the parents handle that," said school co-director Julie Maglio. "Everything is too political anymore."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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