A rally intended to protest the Hillsborough County School Board’s policy to allow organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations to speak at public schools drew demonstrators on both sides of the controversy to the steps of the Hillsborough County School District headquarters in Tampa on Sept. 11.
The rally was part of a daylong 9/11 remembrance organized by conservative groups including the Community Issues Council, the Education Coalition, the Tampa 912, the Tampa Tea Party and the Pinellas Patriots. The group kicked off the remembrance with a prayer vigil at Joe Chillura Park in downtown Tampa and then headed over to the school district for the CAIR protest.
There, they were met by a crowd of CAIR members and supporters brandishing signs accusing the conservative groups of racism, restricting free speech and establishing an environment of hate.
“I think it’s ridiculous what they’re trying to do,” said Sulphur Springs resident Brittany Hallmark. “Everybody has a right to speak. They’re sending a bigoted message.”
The controversy stems from a presentation that Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Tampa CAIR chapter, made to a world history class at Steinbrenner High School last year. Upon learning about the presentation, Brandon resident and school board candidate Terry Kemple appealed to the Hillsborough County School Board in April to adopt more stringent policies on who it allows to speak to students, asserting that CAIR is linked to terrorism.
CAIR denies any link to terrorism. Its website says it is an organization created to challenge "stereotypes of Islam and Muslims" and provide "an Islamic perspective on issues of importance to the American public.”
The school board upheld its policy on speakers in the schools.
"It’s important for our students to be exposed to diverse viewpoints," said school board chairwoman Candy Olson, noting that the board didn't take the issue lightly.
"The board had a long workshop and many of us did our own research," said Olson. "After that workshop, we distributed guidelines for teachers concerning speakers, including a guide on religious speakers."
She said the guidelines made it clear that the teacher must follow these guidelines when recruiting a speaker and that the teacher must be in the classroom at all times.
"Speakers have a great value in engaging students. I've had students tell me the Holocaust was nothing but names and dates until a survivor spoke to them and showed them his tattoo," said Olson. "I’m concerned about teachers being reluctant to have speakers in to enrich students. And I don’t believe a student can be indoctrinated in an hour or two hours."
On Tuesday, Kemple said he wasn’t surprised by the turnout of CAIR supporters at the protest rally.
“I expected them to make a showing today,” he said. However, he said the Community Issues Council and other groups are not going to back down on the issue.
“We’ve been at this for eight months now,” he said. “This issue is not going away. The school board can’t keep burying its head in the sand.”
But residents like Michael Freincle of Brandon fear a policy banning CAIR from speaking in schools will lead to a prohibition of other religious and cultural groups.
“I’m Jewish and I’m American,” said Freincle. “And, as an American, who benefits from religious pluralism, I’m here to stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters. They’re not trying to convert students. I think sharing cultures and other topics of knowledge can benefit students.”
University of South Florida student Estefania Galvis agreed. A member of Students for a Democratic Society and Tampa Against the War on Terror, she said she and fellow students attending the rally felt compelled to stand up for the Muslim community.
“9/11 should be a day of remembrance,” she said. “Not a day to spread hate. We want to spread a message of peace.”