If a high-school history teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools wanted to bring to life the Holocaust, the teacher can assign the class to read "Schindler's List," the book written by Thomas Keneally, which tells the story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler and his efforts to rescue more than 1,000 Jews from Nazi persecution.
The students would have to use their imaginations to see the images described on the pages because the current regulation governing supplemental instructional nonprint materials would prevent the teacher from showing even a portion of the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name, which is based on the book, because of its R rating.
A suggested change in the regulation would permit portions of currently prohibited movies to be shown, provided permission is granted by the school's principal and the parents of the students in the class.
"The teachers are saying they would like to show a portion of the films," said Pat Fege, kindergarten/12th-grade language arts coordinator with the Department of Instructional Services. "An example would be the movie ‘Far and Away.’ The last 10 minutes show an accurate depiction of the Oklahoma land rush."
UNDER THE SUGGESTED change, teachers in grades seven and eight could be permitted to show portions of PG and PG-13 programs with advanced written permission from the students' parents. Teachers in grades nine through 12 could show portions of R-rated movies with written permission from the principal along with written permission from the parents. Teachers in grades kindergarten through six would continue to be prohibited from showing portions of PG, PG-13 and R-rated movies.
The school system already discourages showing entire feature-length films regardless of whether they are age-appropriate because of the amount of instructional time that would be lost.
Before seeking permission from the principal and parents, the teacher would have to submit in writing which film is intended to be shown, including a description of the portions to be viewed by students, and its relevance to the program of studies (POS). The movie selections would continue to be subject to a review from the appropriate departmental office, as well as the same standing committee that reviews supplemental book selections.
Russ Phipps, high-school social-studies specialist, said other movies teachers have expressed interest in showing portions of include "Saving Private Ryan," which is set during World War II; "Glory," which is about the all-black 54th Regiment of Massachusetts during the Civil War; and "Schindler's List."
The regulation stops short of defining what, in particular in a R-rated movie, would be inappropriate to show students.
"The landing of Normandy is a very violent act. The killing of thousands of Jews is a very violent act," said Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent for the Department of Instructional Services. "That's why we didn't want to get into what is violent. Unfortunately, history is often violent.
"Movies receive a R rating not for the whole movie, but usually for some violent or sexually explicit content."
THE POSSIBLE CHANGE received mixed reviews among School Board members when they were told of it at a work session Sept. 5. Regulation changes are developed by staff and typically do not require an approval from the Board.
Board member Mychele Brickner (At large) said trying to fix a problem such as teachers who show movies that are prohibited now was a good idea, but she said she thought the regulation change went too far.
"I think this is opening the door pretty wide," Brickner said. "I understand and have found great merit in the movies suggested. Is it possible to come up with a list of movies already determined to contain useful information rather than open the door for any R-rated movies?"
Fellow at-large Board member Rita Thompson said she was philosophically opposed to the change, questioning the need for the school system to "show movies that the community has deemed objectionable. Are you telling me there is no other material out there except material that we have determined has some redeeming qualities, but not enough redeeming qualities to get a better rating?"
She said the school system can suggest parents rent or take their children to the suggested movies instead of showing them in class.
AFTER FURTHER DEBATE, Thompson said she did not mean to imply movies such as "Schindler's List" were objectionable and not worthy viewing.
Karen Allison, president of the Lake Braddock Secondary School's PTSA, also does not see a reason to change.
"I do not think it is feasible or necessary to change the regulation. It would be a cumbersome task for teachers to seek the permission of the parents of the students in class," Allison said. "Furthermore, there are many other avenues and materials available for teachers to illustrate course content and concepts."
School Board chairman Stuart Gibson said the regulation could provide a nice balance to the instructional tools available to the teachers.
"This applies to non-R-rated portions of R movies, portions that could be in other movies without R ratings," Gibson said. "There are other media out there that support the POS in a valuable way."
Sue Hamblen, president of the Madison High School PTSA, said the question about R-rated movies came up at the school when a teacher wanted to show portions of "The Patriot," which has the American Revolution as a backdrop.
"I support allowing teachers the discretion as long as it supports the POS and there is an optional activity if the parents object," Hamblen said. "History can be gruesome, and sometimes that's the only way you can get through to [the students]."
The staff was going to incorporate ideas expressed by the School Board, such as a uniform form letter to be sent to the parents and looking into the possibility of creating an "approved" viewing list that teachers could select from. The changes will be given to the Board for review before the superintendent of schools decides whether to implement the regulation change.