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Controversial presentation prompts classroom changes

The Sarasota County School Board tightens the approval process of guest speaker material.

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  • | 3:59 p.m. June 25, 2019
  • Sarasota
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Late last year, students at a Sarasota high school were shown an “unsuitable” video by a guest speaker, according to Sarasota County Schools. Now school board members have adjusted district policy to avoid similar events in the future.

In November 2018, a Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center of Sarasota counselor visited Pine View School to present the importance of sexual consent to the school’s senior class. According to the district, the speaker that day deviated from approved material and showed a video produced by Planned Parenthood that included same-sex couple interaction.

The originally approved video, posted on YouTube by Blue Chairs Studios, used cartoon stick figures and drawings to analogize consent to that of offering somebody a cup of tea.

As a result, the Sarasota County School Board adopted a revised community speaker policy in June, opting to tighten the review process and make sure a “speaker’s material aligns to Sarasota County Schools’ curriculum.”

Jessica Hays, SPARCC’s president and CEO, issued a formal apology after the November presentation. But some school board members, such as Bridget Ziegler, criticized a perceived violation of parental rights.

“What do parental rights matter in K-12 [education]?” Ziegler tweeted Nov. 11. “This video was shown to students during an AP literature class. No parents were notified in advance. It was only after a student complained that parents and our board became aware.”

Months later, not all board members were in total disagreement of the video and its content.

“I saw the presentation that ‘created a stir,’ and I saw the approved presentation,” said board member Shirley Brown, who referred to the original video as “laughable.” 

 “I commend the one who brought the [video] with the real people, and I believe that you should ask consent when you are going to be involved in sexual situations with whoever your partner is. … I think consent should also be asked for if it’s a gay or lesbian couple.”

Regardless, district officials and staff members went to work reviewing and revising the policy, tightening regulations and forming the Health and Safety Curriculum Committee to assist in the vetting process.

Now all teachers planning to have a guest speaker must fill out an approval form and remain in the classroom for the entirety of the presentation. Previously, a speaker did not have to fill out an approval form and was only reviewed by the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Advisory Committee if content addressed substance abuse or violence.

“We decided it was important for the teacher or the staff member who was responsible for having a guest speaker come in to make sure that they met with the guest speaker,” Assistant Superintendent Laura Kingsley said, assuring the process remained fair. “Everyone has to fill this out.”

The new forms also involve a wider range of “controversial” topics, as well as a review process described by Kingsley as necessarily “bureaucratic.”

Should speakers elect to present on one of the following topics, their application will be fast-tracked to the district’s Health and Safety Curriculum Committee for monthly review:

  • Substance abuse;
  • Violence prevention;
  • Mental health;
  • Health education;
  • Politics; or
  • Religion.

If a speaker’s presentation is not flagged, the speaker will be automatically run through a verification and background process.

“I do recognize from a teacher’s perspective that this is a lot of bureaucracy,” Ziegler said. “But I think it’s a necessary bureaucracy when you consider the potential exposure, so I am very appreciative.”


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