School district should not limit advocacy groups

On March 1, 2012

The Hillsborough County School District drafted guidelines Tuesday that would regulate outside speakers in K-12 classrooms. The changes come in response to complaints from conservative activists after Hassan Shilby, a lawyer and imam, spoke to an Advanced Placement (AP) world history class at Steinbrenner High School.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the policy would prohibit speakers from activist or advocacy groups, including the PTA, would limit speakers at the Great American Teach-In and would ask teachers to consult with their principals to select speakers who are recommended by the district - a move that will prevent students from receiving a well-rounded education.

The School Board plans to discuss the issue in more detail at a later date, but until then, the guidelines still stand.

Shilby is the executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that some conservative groups claim has terrorist ties. The School Board would have no grounds to investigate an organization for presumed terrorism and assuming something based on rumors would discourage students from accepting others.

A school should welcome members of all beliefs. Exposing students to multiple life philosophies and providing them with the tools necessary to develop their own opinions about the world around them. A class such as AP world history that brings college-level material to high school sophomores would be an appropriate place to introduce students to speakers of other world religions. Students who take AP courses are generally presumed to have high maturity levels and critical thinking skills, both of which would make them unlikely to be easily influenced by one specific speaker.

The teacher of the world history class also brought in speakers of many other faiths and beliefs, none of whom were questioned before the Islamic speaker was invited. It would seem that the issue stemmed from xenophobia rather than the actions of advocacy groups themselves.

One should consider the precedent this policy would cause, including denying entirely legitimate advocacy groups like the NAACP or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Shilby was a legitimate speaker as well who was merely speaking as a member of his faith, the way a fireman speaking at the Great American Teach-In would speak about putting out fires.

The guidelines may also limit other groups who are already staples in the school district, such as IMPACT, an abstinence-only education group that speaks at many schools in the area. Just as Florida schools are required to teach abstinence education to students, they are also required to teach diversity.

Eliminating these speakers may limit the exposure many students have to people of other faiths.

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