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School board: Policy OK on classroom speakers

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:04 AM

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TAMPA -

Austin Ransdell said it was no big deal.

The Steinbrenner High School sophomore was in the advanced placement world history classroom late last year when a guest speaker from the Council on American Islamic Relations visited to talk about the Muslim religion.

Ransdell said Hassan Shibly, executive director of the local CAIR group, didn't try to brainwash the students. Nor did he try to convert them.

He simply tried to give them a primer on what could be called Islam 101.

"I was never uncomfortable at any time," Ransdell told Hillsborough County school board members who met Friday afternoon for a workshop on guest speakers in the classroom. "I thought it was just another way to learn it."

The board scheduled the workshop after a public outcry over Shibly's visit to Steinbrenner. At four board meetings this year, a parade of speakers has urged the board to adopt a policy that would prevent groups such as CAIR from visiting schools.

They claimed the group has ties to terrorists and has an agenda other than educating students about Islam.

"I think it's unfounded," Ransdell said, speaking of the outcry. "It was just about how Islam started."

After 2½ hours, board members seemed to come to a consensus that they have enough policies and procedures in place for guest speakers in the classroom. With the exception of Stacy White, all seemed to agree there already are rules that exist to legislate such things.

They also agreed on another topic — that they are sick and tired of the amount of time they have spent on the issue.

"I want to get back to the business of this district," said April Griffin. "What we have been doing works. What I heard from the student today assured me of that. I heard nothing that raised any concerns."

White, however, had concerns.

He said the Steinbrenner situation was different than having a banker or a veteran come speak to a class for an hour. He mentioned a cloud of suspicion that lingers around CAIR because some accuse it of ties to terrorism.

"To me, this is an issue about guest speakers in the context of world religion," White said. "We as a board are being naïve or kidding ourselves if we don't realize it is a completely different animal when you are talking about religion."

A handful of school administrators told the board there is a significant value in having guest speakers in the classroom. Banning them or strictly curtailing them, they said, would not be a good move.

"What the speakers add to the classroom is legitimacy," said Robert Padgett, the social studies chairman at Plant City High School. "When you bring someone in who has personal experience, it lends legitimacy to what has been said."

Pam Bowden, principal at Durant High School, said guest speakers are particularly important for career and technical education fields.

She said it would be hard for students to get hands-on experience from professionals such as chefs and welders if they were not allowed into the classroom.

"I think it's critical we have guests come into our schools," Bowden said. "It makes our students stronger and smarter and more prepared for the real world."

In the end, the board decided it does not need to pass any new rules and restrictions on guest speakers. But it will have to address the issue at a pair of regular board meetings in the future.

Terry Kemple, who has led the effort to keep CAIR out of the classroom, is not happy with the direction the board is headed. He said CAIR has no more place in the classroom than those who would push pedophilia or Ku Klux Klan agendas.

"We have a number of arrogant elected officials who think they know more than the community does. The people who sit on the dais don't give any validity to our concern in this issue," said Kemple, who is running for Carol Kurdell's countywide school board seat.

"It's a travesty," he said. "This is just blatant ignorance or obstinance."


rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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