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  1. Education

In Hillsborough, a voice of reason in defense of learning world's religions

Published Jan. 27, 2012

School board meetings tend to be dull if necessary affairs, filled with proclamations, test score talk and the latest lineup of principals. (Stifle yawn here.)

But at a meeting of the Hillsborough County School Board this week came a Serious Moment of Truth out of an elected official who spoke up for education and showing kids what's out there in the world. You could even say she rose up righteous.

As is tradition around here, the controversy du jour was ignited by fear and misinformation and the flames fanned by our own in-house cast of moral crusaders. You know, the ones who have a direct line Upstairs. Just ask them.

Past local controversies have included what religious holidays should be days off from school and whether a display of gay-themed books belonged at a library.

This time, the subject was Muslims.

A Steinbrenner High history teacher found herself in the thick of it for inviting Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, to speak to her Advanced Placement class on assorted topics: stereotypes, human rights, women in Islam, that sort of thing. Shibly spoke with students and shook hands afterward. And apparently, we can't have that.

Actual fact: Official state curriculum calls for high school students to learn about major religions of the world. Leaving one out would be like denying the existence of a continent (Europe, maybe?) or a planet (and you know, I never really did trust Mars). The teacher had, by the way, invited speakers of other faiths, including Christianity.

None of which mattered to the likes of David Caton, ex-porn addict turned moral crusader, who made this the latest target for his Florida Family Association. The School Board was flooded with emails in protest.

At the mention of Caton, some people will ask: Why give this guy more ink to help him bolster his self-made image as Official Spokesman For All That Is Right? Fair enough. But when a small-potatoes guy like him can help pressure a chain the size of Lowe's into pulling ads from a TV show called All-American Muslim, you should know.

Citizens, activists, parents and others stepped up at this week's meeting to protest, including an 11-year-old boy who attends his classes online and told the board these were the same people who flew a plane into the twin towers.

When they were done, board chairwoman Candy Olson set some things straight. No, this was not an attempt to "indoctrinate" students as was claimed, only to give them a broader view of differing perspectives and customs that really do exist, no matter how you try to shield their eyes. (You go, Candy O.)

"Our children need to know what is going on in the world, and they need to get their information from somewhere other than the cellphone, the news or Jersey Shore," she said.

She did not say: Or from the David Catons of the world (but I will).

She also said, "I don't think that we can protect our children from the fact that there are extremists in every religion." She did not say: Maybe even really close by (but that's what I heard).

And so there it was, in the middle of a public meeting on the boring business of running a school district: a moment of sanity, and maybe even the very definition of education.

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