Superintendent Jeff Eakins, ACLU at odds over religious activity in Hillsborough schools

Pastor Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church talks to Hillsborough County Schools principals and assistant principals in a seminar last October. The schools system has been criticized for its close relationship with the church. [Times (2015)]
Pastor Ken Whitten of Idlewild Baptist Church talks to Hillsborough County Schools principals and assistant principals in a seminar last October. The schools system has been criticized for its close relationship with the church. [Times (2015)]
Published May 7, 2016

TAMPA — Superintendent Jeff Eakins met with the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday to discuss Constitutional concerns about religious proselytizing in Hillsborough County's public schools.

The meeting lasted 90 minutes. The group found Eakins receptive.

The next day, Eakins made the case that the district's actions are legal, appropriate and in the best interest of students.

A five-page report posted Friday to the upcoming School Board meeting agenda gives point-by-point explanations for everything from the coffee coupons Idlewild Baptist Church brought to a faculty meeting to Eakins' complimentary remarks about First Priority, an organization that helps students spread the gospel at school.

The report was drafted in response to a request at the last board meeting from School Board chairwoman April Griffin. The district, Eakins wrote, is wise to accept help from outside organizations at a time of great societal needs and limited government resources.

"More than 179 schools in our district have student populations where more than 60 percent qualify for free or reduced [price] lunch," he wrote. "Federal, state, and local funding have all been reduced."

Later, he continued, "acts of charity, compassion, and partnership from responsible business, nonprofit, and faith-based community groups are essential. All partnerships that unbiasedly serve our schools and students are welcome, needed, and appreciated."

Eakins acknowledged he asked First Priority to remove videos from its website that showed testimonials from school principals.

But he offered this explanation from one of the principals: The video was not taped during school hours, and the principal's goal was to help other administrators understand that he was not discriminating against anyone or any religion, nor was he doing anything improper.

Eakins said that the document was intended more as a progress report than a defense. In several places it mentioned training and screening for volunteers, which he is working to strengthen.

"The document is a historical collection of everything since the beginning of the year," he said. "I wanted it to be very comprehensive. This is really a document that will inform our practices moving forward."

Eakins has fielded questions about religion since the first week of school, when a photograph was circulated of a teacher wearing a t-shirt that said, "STAFF — in Partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church."

Soon after Idlewild, a large church known for its leaders' conservative views, organized voluntary training sessions for principals. The content was secular. But critics bristled at the notion that the church had a prominent role in district leadership.

Several organizations, representing religious minorities and opponents to school proselytizing, raised questions about First Priority and other groups with similar missions. By law, students can gather, pray and discuss religion in public middle and high schools. But the practice offends those who do not want public children pressured to convert.

A low point came in April, when a Wisconsin-based advocacy group reported the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had an employee with unlimited access to students at five high schools. The employee had criminal convictions and was posting frequently on Facebook. The district quickly banned him from the schools and ordered all other Fellowship staff into training.

The ACLU was not satisfied.

At a meeting Thursday, leaders of the local chapter presented Eakins with a 36-page PowerPoint that included legal opinions and pictures of adults who appeared to have key roles in gatherings that were supposed to be student-led.

The ACLU also handed Eakins a list of requests. Among them:

Identify school employees who have "crossed lines" and issue written warnings. Eakins said before such discipline can occur the employees, including coaches, must be given training.

Non-student adults must not be allowed to control or direct faith-based clubs, or roam freely on campus.

Religious messages from non-students should not be permitted on campus, and that includes messages on their clothing. The district lets volunteers wear what they want as long as they conform to a broad dress code for teachers. Idlewild volunteers at Just Elementary School wear bright red shirts that quote the Scripture.

Eakins pointed out that the issues civil rights groups raised have existed for years. He said he and the ACLU agreed on most points — particularly, the need for ongoing training.

"We have to value all organizations that work with our students," he said. "But in those relationships, there have to be very clear lines."

The School Board can discuss Eakins' document at its 3 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.