Board sets policy for high school plays

Loudoun Easterner
June 15, 2005
By David Bradley

The Loudoun County School Board June 14 unanimously approved a policy banning obscene material from high school plays.

The policy approved by the School Board just before midnight forbids “productions involving obscenity or advocating the commission of illegal acts or the violation of school rules or policies.”

“We had a long debate about the difference between ‘advocating’ and ‘depicting,'” Robert DuPree (Dulles) said after the meeting. “Just depicting an illegal act is not the same thing as advocating it.”

The 9-0 vote came after months of work writing the policy and several hours of debate Tuesday evening.

During the meeting, which was attended by more than 100 parents, students and political activists, the School Board began by debating a policy which had been recommended by the Legislative/Policy Committee, and several amendments proposed by School Board members. The policy which was approved shortly before midnight was a combination of several different proposals.

The committee-recommended policy would have banned obscene material from school plays, and required Superintendent Edgar Hatrick to issue guidelines for theatrical productions to school principals. Amendments proposed by some School Board members were generally more restrictive, proposing language which would ban performances not “appropriate to the emotional maturity of the anticipated audience,” “violate or advocate violating the law, school rules or school policy,” or include profane, vulgar or lewd content. During debates over the past three months some School Board members indicated that they wanted the policy to include restrictions on sexual themes of any kind in high school productions.

The policy debate began earlier this year in the wake of a high school play in which a kiss was implied between two male characters.

During Tuesday’s meeting speakers from both sides of the issue — some calling on the School Board to pass the committee recommended policy, others asking that it be made more restrictive — packed into the meeting room on North Street in Leesburg. Some parents told School Board members that a play which involved an adulterous relationship was hard to explain to their young children.

Speaker Susie Chapman asked the School Board to include in their policy a ban on productions which “include content which is obscene, lewd or which appeals to prurient interests.”

According to Chapman the committee-recommended policy did not go far enough.

“Under the policy my children remain vulnerable,” Chapman said.

Amanda Ellis, a drama student at Potomac Falls High School in Sterling, said she did not see any need to a policy to police the content of high school productions. The maturity level of productions accurately reflects the audience attending the plays, according to Ellis.

“Our target audience is not young children, but teenagers and their parents,” Ellis said.

Some parents warned that stricter guidelines could dull student creativity and force many classic productions, including “South Pacific” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” out of high school theaters.

Cathy Hawes, president of the citizen’s group Mainstream Loudoun, said her organization supported the committee-recommended policy.

“The committee crafted a reasonable policy that places responsibility in the hands of education professionals and helps to avoid the constitutional problems associated with content censorship,” Hawes said. A more restrictive policy could make the county vulnerable to lawsuits, according to Hawes.

School Board member Warren Geurin (Sterling), who had proposed more restrictive policy language, said the board should not be swayed by the possibility of legal action.

“I am not intimidated by veiled threats of lawsuits,” Geurin said.

“I do not want to impinge on anyone’s legal rights,” Geurin said. “But there is no legal right to be obscene on a high school or middle school stage.”

School Board members said they were impressed by the courtesy with which speakers at the meeting treated each other. Some meetings where the policy has been discussed were disrupted by cheers and booing.

“What I heard this evening was input from parents,” Joseph Guzman (Sugarland Run) said. “What I heard from parents is “we need a reasonable policy and I like the policy [recommended by the committee].'”

The final responsibility for the content of high school plays now falls on the shoulders of principals, DuPree said.

“They will be held accountable by the Superintendent,” DuPree said.

Loudoun County schools have had a policy banning obscene or disruptive material from student publications since 1976, but there has been no such policy for stage productions.

The debate over restricting the content of high school plays was taken up in response to “Offsides,” a student-produced play performed in February at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn. The play was criticized by Delegate Dick Black (R-32nd) and Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling). Delgaudio has called on the School Board to enact policies to prevent “the continued promotion of bizarre and obscene immoral practices that offend all traditional pro-family religions in America and the world.”

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