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Censoring School Plays

A School Board committee is trying to craft a policy on school productions.

Members of a School Board committee will spend the next two weeks reviewing proposed guidelines for drama productions in an ongoing debate over censorship and First Amendment rights.

The Legislative/Policy Committee met last Thursday to consider two policies in response to complaints over a Stone Bridge High School play "Offsides." The production explored homosexuality and featured two boys simulating a kiss.

Superintendent of Schools Edgar Hatrick suggested that responsibility for developing the guidelines should be given to him, and in turn, he would turn their implementation over to school principals. "It is my belief, it is ultimately the principal’s responsibility … to determine what plays ought to be performed," he said. "They all accept the 'principalship' with the notion it is their responsibility to guide and direct what is going on at that school."

He introduced a draft of those guidelines. It included a provision for the principal and the drama teacher to consider "whether modes of expression expose minors to vulgar, indecent, lewd, or offensive language or acts."

School Board member J. Warren Geurin (Sterling), however, presented another draft, adding language that prohibits theater productions containing sexual themes, promoting sexuality or depicting sexual acts.

THE COMMITTEE had asked for a legal opinion on what they could include in a "theatrical presentations" policy.

Attorney E. William Chapman recommended avoiding regulations that would specify circumstances that would interfere with the administrators' authority to use their judgment. He also recommended a policy with restrictions that are related to legitimate educational concerns. In addition, he suggested a policy that maintains neutrality and avoids discrimination.

Hatrick said his goal, in drafting a policy, was to avoid focusing on any form of sexuality. "I don’t think the issue is homosexuality or heterosexuality," he said.

"We’re not, in many ways, the first ones to discuss what we’re discussing here,“ Hatrick said. "Even the U.S. Supreme Court has had great difficulty in establishing what standards should be in these areas.”

Committee Chairman Mark Nuzzaco (Catactin) said setting the policy was not intended as a method to judge or ridicule people nor an attempt to stifle academic freedom.

School Board vice chairman Tom Reed (At large), in exploring how to place limitations on a play, asked what if the two boys in "Offsides" had greeted one another with "Heil Hitler" instead of a kiss.

Hatrick said If you have to tell people ahead of time that 'You might be offended by what’s in the play,' then the script's content is going too far.

Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) asked how the committee could ensure the drama teacher or sponsor understands that he or she is not to introduce subjects of prurient Interest. The document should hold teachers accountable, he said.

THE SCHOOL BOARD members discussed whether constraints could be put on clubs such as a Nazi club. Chapman said they would have little difficulty in convincing a court that the clubs do not belong in the school, if it can be established that the clubs generate disruption.

Nuzzaco and Ohneiser expressed concerns about outside groups influencing clubs by distributing objectionable literature.

"How do we protect the manipulation of the child’s issue of national organizations that have no right to be in the school?” Ohneiser asked.

Chapman said he was not optimistic about the board's ability to prevent the distribution. The First Amendment protects that right.

Sarah Smith (Leesburg) said deciding this issue is her "worst nightmare."

"I try to respect academic freedom. I was always for students expressing themselves," she said. "And yet … I can see both issues very clearly. I just wish I wasn't on the board at this moment to make a decision about this."

School Board member Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) said he is more concerned about what happens in the classroom than in a play. "How do we also include the classrooms? We can't just ignore that."

Chapman said he understood Ohneiser's point. "What you are saying is, 'Be good teachers. Do the right thing,'" he said. "I can't articulate how you can do it. Therefore, I can't write it."

THE STONE BRIDGE High School play in February generated hundreds of comments to the School Board, both in support and opposition to its content. Del. Richard Black (R-32) had e-mailed constituents on his mailing list, urging them not to allow tax dollars to “promote homosexual activity in our schools.

Supporters of the play and First Amendment rights turned out Thursday for the committee meeting. David Weintraub, president of Equality Loudoun, said it is clear that the committee wants to censor viewpoints that they do not support. The organization is a community and advocacy group for people who have gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender orientations. "I think that once the School Board is entitled to impose their personal viewpoints this way, people should be asking, 'What next?' What if they have a viewpoint about the proper role of women in the community. What's next? … They aren't going to stop there."

Karen Hawes, president of Mainstream Loudoun, said censoring the school plays would sacrifice the quality of education.

Dawn Meyer, a teacher and mother of a middle-school-aged daughter, said she is concerned that the policy will go too far. "I hope she can do Shakespeare and that's not going to be taken away from her," she said, noting that the playwright's use of vulgar and lewd comments in his work. "What about Romeo and Juliet. Is that too sexual? I think it's dangerous waters they are walking into."

Sterling Middle School Principal Ellen Fein said she hoped the committee would not take the final decision away from the principals. "That's what we are hired to do," she said. "I hope that they don't get so specific we end up in a worse situation than we already are in."

Stone Bridge Principal Jim Person said the committee is putting all of the concerns and issues on the table. "I respect that," he said. "As principals, we would like everything to be in black and white, but ultimately we exist in some gray."

Andrea Simpson, a Loudoun County High School junior and member of the Gay Straight Alliance, said the decision should be left with the students, because they are the ones who have to deal with the issues every day.

Kayla Hylton, a sophomore in the same club, agreed. "If they want to put on the play, let them. If someone doesn't want to watch it, don't."