Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Education

School Board workshop takes closer look at guest speakers

TAMPA — Changing, tweaking or even reaffirming how the Hillsborough County schools use outside speakers will require at least one public hearing — including public comments.

That's what School Board attorney Tom Gonzalez said Friday at a workshop prompted by backlash over a Muslim leader's visit to a high school world history class.

It was not the result chairwoman Candy Olson wanted when she presented a brief description of the process as it now exists: Teachers invite speakers, sometimes with the help of their principals, and students learn from the experience.

But, although Olson asked her fellow board members simply to acknowledge the practice, Gonzalez said the document looked like policy, and the elected board could not sanction it without a formal hearing.

"We will look at the law," superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. "And then we will set up a timetable."

In the meantime teachers can still invite speakers. Elia has asked that they consult with principals and curriculum supervisors, and avoid inviting advocacy groups.

The board, though unable to vote Friday, was deeply divided in its discussion of the issue, which has brought dozens of angry speakers to its Tuesday meetings. Member Stacy White took issue with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose executive director Hassan Shibly spoke at Steinbrenner High School in November. Critics of CAIR say its ranks include terrorist sympathizers, while the organization insists it promotes mutual understanding and protects Muslims' civil rights.

"CAIR has a cloud of suspicion and controversy lingering over it," White said. He said the district must use caution when it comes to religion, and speakers should have proper credentials. He said he would not support Olson's document if it came to a vote.

On the other end of the spectrum, member April Griffin said the discourse of recent months — in which some speakers have disparaged the entire religion of Islam — is "absolutely disgusting," and the board should not give in to pressure from conservative activists such as David Caton and Terry Kemple.

"I resent having this conversation in the first place," Griffin said. "I do not think we need a policy. My goal right now is to keep things the way they are."

Others said they trust the judgment of teachers and principals. Member Susan Valdes agreed, but added that they must also look out for student safety.

The workshop, which did not allow public comment, did include statements from principals and assistant principals whose schools have benefited from speakers.

Steinbrenner principal Brenda Grasso said guests enhance the teaching process. "Any time we can make the curriculum or instruction more relevant, we need to," she said.

What's more, she said, teachers are always available to guide the lesson and end it if necessary. "Our employee is there," she said. "They are that fail-safe piece in the classroom."

The workshop opened with a question-and-answer session with Austin Ransdell, 16, a sophomore who was at Steinbrenner when Shibly spoke.

As Austin described the lesson, Shibly spoke of the prophet Mohammed and the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the basic principles of the religion. "We asked him about his beard and about the hat he wore," said Austin, whose mother sat beside him.

Questioned by the board, he said the material was similar to what they had already learned. But coming from a practitioner, "It was a little more engaging, if you will."

He said he never felt indoctrinated. But he also said two things that disturbed White: Shibly spoke about anti-Muslim stereotypes, and Austin's class has not met with representatives of other religions.

Kemple, who was in the audience, said afterwards that hundreds will attend the upcoming hearings. He called the board members arrogant. "They feel they know more than the people of the community know," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or