Don’t poke the bear

Archive of drama policy material

The panel on the LCPS theatrical presentations policy held last night was very illuminating – kudos to the LEAP program coordinators for pulling it together. There will be a detailed report later below the fold, but to summarize: A climate of fear exists in the high schools, and it is resulting in an unlawful implementation of the policy. This was freely admitted by the panel. Perfectly valid and appropriate plays are being rejected in order to avoid “poking the bear” – stirring up another controversy like we saw a year ago. The plays that are being performed this year are, in the words of one panelist, “Disney crapola.”

What the panelists described is a textbook case of the “heckler’s veto” in action. Ideas and viewpoints are being suppressed because – and only because – they might offend someone and create controversy. The panel also freely acknowledged that what is happening would not withstand a court challenge. It is unlawful viewpoint discrimination.

When the anti-gay right expressed satisfaction with the policy last year, we said that their intention was to bring about exactly this outcome. They no doubt see it as a victory that a good principal described his treatment by them as “some of the worst days of my life,” and that a good teacher affirms that the climate of fear and uncertainty has been detrimental to the kids.

If this is the case, it is a false victory. The other thing that was brilliantly clarified by the panel is that this chain of events has created enormous opportunities (necessities, really) to have conversations with the students about what topics are controversial, why they are controversial, the meaning of “the sensibilities of the community,” and “socially appropriate behavior,” and other issues raised by the policy and the actions of pro-censorship activists in the community.

It’s worth asking here what the bear is and who is poking it.

These conversations can only be a good thing. This “victory” contains the seeds of its own destruction and will ultimately be a positive development for our community. Perhaps we should send flowers to Concerned Women for America and Dick Black.

The panelists were: Jim Person, principal of Stone Bridge High School; Ned Waterhouse, Deputy Superintendent; Carolyn Perry, English Supervisor for the LCPS Department of Curriculum and Instruction; and John Wells, drama teacher and Chair of Fine Arts at Loudoun County High School.

Neither the School Board members nor the Superintendent were present due to a budget hearing.

UPDATE: As promised, a full report below.

LEAP Panel Discussion, March 8, 2006

Ned Waterhouse opened the discussion with a synopsis of the events leading up to adoption of the policy. He pointed out that the need for education professionals to find balance between different interests in the community, and between student rights and responsibilities is nothing new, and that “a lot of good dialogue came out of this issue.” He also outlined the primary student expression court cases that guided the policy discussions for both the staff and board, and indicated that the Superintendent and staff were proactive in carrying out their own independent research.

Waterhouse emphasized that School Board counsel William Chapman worked very hard to impress on the Board the limitations placed on them by the law. He said “our board took that to heart,” and that the policy language was chosen very carefully based on previous case law. At the same time, he reported that some board members continued to “hammer” not only on the idea of obscenity, but wanted to insert language such as “lewd,” “vulgar” and “indecent.”

According to Waterhouse, the school board provided tremendous input in the development of the regulations, and that is unusual. Typically, the Superintendent and staff are responsible for crafting the regulatory language that will actually implement policies adopted by the board. That is the process and division of labor that was advertised to the public during the policy deliberations.

Waterhouse did not state this outright, but it appears that once the deliberations were no longer open to the public, that process was abandoned, and the assurances given to the public were violated.

As a result, language ended up in the regulations that was opposed by the education professionals whose job it was to draft those regulations – specifically clause 2.b.(“whether modes of expression expose minors to vulgar, indecent, lewd or offensive language or acts;”) and 4. (“Plays with vulgar or lewd acts should not be presented”). This is precisely the language that Chapman had strongly cautioned the board not to include in the policy itself.

The “heckler’s veto”

One of our questions for the panel was how a meaningful distinction could be made between an actual “lewd or vulgar act” and the fact that someone in the community might claim that an act was “lewd or vulgar.” Some people have claimed, for example, that a kiss is a “lewd act,” and that the fact that gay people exist is “indecent” and “inappropriate;” with no legal definition of these terms, how are principals expected to judge whether material is in violation of the policy?

All of the panelists readily agreed that there is no objective standard for making that judgement. It means that principals are, in effect, making subjective decisions based on whether they think someone in the community will be offended by a play and create a controversy. The panel was in complete agreement with our characterization of this as a clear cut example of the heckler’s veto in action.

Waterhouse discussed the specific language in the policy that establishes the authority of the schools to regulate theatrical presentations as part of the curriculum (this is significant in terms of Equal Access law, which rests on the presumption of an extracurricular, limited public forum). He also discussed the inclusion in the regulations of the requirement to post on the school website a “brief summary” of each play approved for production. This was presented as a courtesy to the public, allowing individuals to decide, based on the summary, whether or not they wish to see (or have their children see) a play. In an ideal world this might be the actual function of these summaries, but what we have seen in this community is that some people are not satisfied with the ability to simply choose for themselves, and demand the right to choose for the rest of us as well. It remains to be seen whether the summaries posted on school websites will be trolled for content with which to stir up controversy.

It remains to be seen, because, since the implementation of the policy, there has been nothing remotely controversial to post.

“I got to know one young woman’s heart and soul.”

Jim Person spoke next, opening with the statement “One of the happiest days of my life was getting through our One Acts this year, coming in on Monday morning, and not finding any emails from the Superintendent or board members.”

It was clear that he had no idea of the uproar that was going to be created in response to “Offsides.” He expected the topic to cause some discussion, but was genuinely surprised by the emotional intensity and duration of the outcry, and taken aback by “things that were said to me and about me.”

Person took the brunt of the personal attacks by anti-gay activists, by taking ownership of his decision to approve the play, and maintaining that he was proud of the playwright and her drama teacher. He is particularly mystified by the claim that he approved the play in order to “promote homosexuality.” Although he personally wasn’t that comfortable with the topic himself, he saw it as “a metaphor for a multitude of things students are dealing with,” and furthermore, that what it portrayed was a very tormented student who was being treated horribly by those who were supposed to be his friends, hardly “promotion.”

Person, in spite of the chilling statement, “This is not something I’d want to go through again anytime soon. It beats you up emotionally,” was very clear that his job is “to nurture every kid’s ability to think critically and make up their own mind.” He has been a principal for a long time, and has seen many instances in which the very diverse student body has become split over a divisive issue. In this case, the students were completely united in support of him and the play, and could not understand what the uproar was about.

The “9/11 effect”

Carolyn Perry talked about the role of the policy as a document that provides a baseline in the event that there are further controversies, so the matter isn’t simply left to subjective whim. We now have something concrete to go back to if there is an issue.

As a teacher and administrator with long experience as a journalism and literary magazine advisor, she spoke to the fact that there are always limitations on student expression, that it’s never a situation of “anything goes,” and that responsibility to the intended audience is part of what students are supposed to be learning.

The policy has provided the opportunity for teachers to sit down with students and talk about who their intended audience is, if there is anything that could be inappropriate for that audience, and why. Thoughtful teachers should be able to ask the right questions to elicit responsible decisions by the students. However, she also holds audience members accountable for knowing what they are going to see. “I get very frustrated with the ‘take care of me’ attitude, where they say they didn’t know there was going to be killing in ‘MacBeth.'”

Her view is that the current apprehensiveness on the part of teachers and principals is a temporary condition. She compared the situation to the periods right after the 9/11 attacks and right after Katrina, when artists shied away from anything that might have the appearance of insensitivity. Over time, she feels, everyone will become more comfortable, because it is “almost impossible to do something that isn’t going to offend someone,” and we have the policy language to refer to.

This appears to be explicit recognition that a play would not be in violation of the policy simply because it is offensive to the folks who found “Offsides” so upsetting – and an interesting commentary on what those folks did to our community and our schools.

“What happened was an aberration in our community.”

John Wells was the most frank of the panelists about the actual impact of the regulations on the teachers and students. He stated outright that “decisions are being made based on fear, not art, literature or pedagogical value,” and that the climate that has been created is detrimental to the kids. Principals are choosing not to approve perfectly good, appropriate plays out of fear of offending someone for any reason, not because the material actually would violate the policy. What is so frightening to him and other teachers is not the policy language itself – they already exercise responsibility with their students and take their intended audience into consideration, and the policy doesn’t add much to what they already do. What is frightening are some of the things he heard people say at the school board meetings. Even though he has done nothing wrong, the experience made him feel demonized, especially the accusation that he and other teachers were “looking for some way to be incendiary.”

Wells described the feeling that he has no idea who might walk in to one of his productions or what they might be offended by – “we don’t want to poke the bear,” he said. His own principal was afraid to approve a parody of censorship itself, out of fear that it would stir up protest by people assuming that they were being made fun of (hey, if the shoe fits..). This prize-winning play has been performed many times elsewhere with no problems. He also asked us to consider the play “Inherit the Wind.” Although it obviously does not violate the policy in any way, it deals with a “hot-button issue,” evolution/creationism, and would for that reason “stir up a hornet’s nest.”

This is the clearest indication of what the censors were after. It doesn’t really matter what is in the policy; what is important is that they demonstrated their willingness to create a disturbance and disrupt the schools’ primary mission of instruction. They could repeat this disturbance for any reason, at any time, whether or not it has anything to do with the current policy.

“Disney crapola”

Wells thanked Waterhouse for beautifully laying out the ideal of political balance, but then went on to describe the plays selected for high school productions this spring: Two schools will be performing “Suessical: The Musical.” Other selections are “Cinderella,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Sound of Music.” Wells is “the radical” in the group, with his production of “Guys and Dolls.” While we’re sure that these are all quality plays, this is not appropriate fare for young adults about to go off to college or careers in professional theater.

Wells also pointed out – and the other panelists agreed – that the disturbance last year is an aberration in our community. He could think of only one other time that a school play elicited protest; that was in 1980 over a play entitled “Dark of the Moon.” (Some community members apparently objected because it had witches in it. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.)

Wells also believes that the current climate of fear and apprehension will be temporary, as principals realize that if they eliminate everything that could possibly offend anyone for any reason, there will be nothing left.

When asked who they see as the intended audience for high school plays, Wells explained that the primary mission of drama teachers is the edification of their students, not to provide G-rated entertainment for the residents of Loudoun County. Explicitly cited by Wells: the school board member who suggested otherwise does not understand the purpose of drama programs in our schools. (Also worth noting: that member is also the one who openly stated in a school board meeting that he only feels the need to represent those constituents who voted for him.)

The rest of the panel was unanimous that high school drama productions are not intended for elementary age children – but Person pointed out that it wouldn’t have made any difference to have limited the venue of “Offsides” to a specific age group; the people who didn’t like the point of view it represented didn’t want it performed for any audience. Waterhouse added that even passing a “family litmus test” wouldn’t preclude controversy. There would still be differences of opinion on whether a given issue or point of view is “offensive.”

It couldn’t be more clear that this entire pitiful episode was politically motivated. Right next door in Fairfax county, high schools regularly perform “The Laramie Project,” and there is absolutely nothing in the policy or regulations that would preclude Loudoun county high schools from doing the same. Regardless, Wells says that “right now, no one I know in Loudoun would come near ‘The Laramie Project.'”

Paradoxically, that’s ok. The lesson about what some of their elders are is not being lost on the kids as they watch this play out – and it is a very useful lesson.

“Stamping out student expression because it’s unpopular is doomed to failure,” concluded Waterhouse, meaning that this politically motivated outcome cannot sustain itself. He’s right.

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2 Responses to Don’t poke the bear

  1. Russell Munos says:

    I think they should just do “The Laramie Project” and get it over with. The controversy there? – Fairfax County has better schools, what is Loudoun’s problem.

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