1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough superintendent defends Muslim leader's school visit

Published Jan. 25, 2012

TAMPA — Allowing a Muslim leader to speak to high school students does not equate to supporting terrorism, Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Tuesday.

Rather, it's a good way to expose students to religions as part of a robust study of history, she said, eliciting boos from a crowd at a School Board meeting.

More than a dozen people showed up to rally against the invitation of a Muslim leader to speak at Steinbrenner High last year — a move that recently earned the ire of conservative activist David Canton of the Florida Family Association.

Leading the charge Tuesday was another local conservative, Terry Kemple, known for opposing same-sex marriage. Kemple urged board members to end Islamic visits to schools.

The Steinbrenner speaker in question belongs to the Council on American-Islamic Relations ­— a group Kemple says supports Hezbollah.

His rebuke was followed by similar messages from moms and dads, activists, a grandmother and an 11-year-old boy who talked about nuclear weapons and the twin towers.

"I mean, why you would let this religion be taught in our schools but you won't let the religion that this country was made off of be taught in this school?" asked Ryan Italiano, who takes classes online.

That's not exactly what has happened, said Elia.

Teaching the major world religions is a required part of the state's curriculum standards, she said.

"I think the teachers at Steinbrenner have done a tremendous job," Elia said.

Chairwoman Candy Olson said the district has hosted representatives from other religions, too.

"You talk about protecting our children, and I absolutely agree," Olson said. "But unless you are going to lock your children in their rooms with no access to cellphones or Internet or television, they'd better know what's going on in this world.

"I don't think we can protect our children from the fact that there are extremists in every religion."

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.


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