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  1. Education

Board chairwoman calls for guidelines when Hillsborough schools interact with religious groups

April Griffin’s remarks come after the school chief endorsed an organization.
Published Jan. 14, 2016

TAMPA — When it comes to church involvement in public education, Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman April Griffin wants to establish guidelines for staff — including superintendent Jeff Eakins, who publicly endorsed a school missionary organization this week.

"I don't want to put anybody down in this process," Griffin told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. "We need help from the community," including religious organizations.

"But it has to be all religious organizations. It has to be secular. And there cannot be proselytizing. I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States — and Florida — when I took this office."

Griffin spoke a day after Eakins, at a public luncheon attended by about 100 people, praised and thanked First Priority Tampa Bay, which assists school-based clubs with the express mission of bringing students to Christ.

Eakins commended First Priority for exemplifying the district's core values, which include servant leadership, mentoring and conflict resolution.

He said there is no constitutional issue because the clubs are student-led, although the adult-run organization provides guidance and the campus visitors are also adults.

Earlier in the school year, Eakins allowed Idlewild Baptist Church to coordinate voluntary training for principals. Idlewild also attracted controversy by handing out teacher T-shirts with its name and logo, and coupons school employees can redeem for coffee at the Lutz church.

Griffin said she is not against Idlewild or any church sending volunteers to tutor children or plant trees. "But don't give us T-shirts or entice us with coffee, those sorts of things," she said.

In the coming weeks, Griffin said she will arrange a meeting with representatives of the Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths. At the meeting, she said, she hopes to discuss the issue and agree on parameters that would apply to all religious organizations.

Fellow School Board member Melissa Snively said she supports Griffin's call for guidelines but would not want to discourage religious groups from getting involved.

"If they're trying to improve students' experience, and we can show through data that they have done that, I don't see why we would not want to support them," she said.

Snively said she does not object to a religious organization on campus "if it is truly student-led — again, setting parameters and guidelines. I do not want any students pressured into doing something they're not comfortable doing."

As for whether it was appropriate for Eakins to endorse First Priority, Snively said, "I guess it's his prerogative as superintendent if that's the message he wants to send."

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

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