A School Board committee has given preliminary approval to a new drama policy, but it fails to quell dissent. Supporters of the high-school play that led to the board's decision to develop a policy have found fault with the guidelines.
The board's Legislative and Policy Committee on Wednesday approved a policy, governing the content of school plays and prohibiting obscenity in them. The policy gives the drama teacher primary responsibility and the principal final authority to ensure students adhere to its guidelines. The full board is expected to vote on it within a month.
THE BOARD gave the committee the task of drafting a policy about three months ago in response to protests over a Stone Bridge High School play, "Offsides." The production, written by a student Sabrina Audrey Jess, explored homosexuality and featured two boys implying a kiss.
Committee members discussed last week the possibility of a policy prohibiting obscene, lewd, lascivious, profane, slanderous and libelous content, but decided to ban "obscenity" in a compromise proposal.
Superintendent of School Edgar Hatrick objected to the lengthy list of prohibitions. "When we use words like lascivious as opposed to lewd as opposed to obscene, I think we are creating a policy that will be difficult to administer," he said. "I would just urge us not to put more words in than we need."
Committee members raised concerns specifically over whether to address a disclaimer in the policy. Committee Chairman Mark Nuzzaco (Catoctin) proposed wording that said, "Disclaimers may not be used in place of observing the standards of this policy." They decided instead to include wording that said disclaimers would not be used in place of observing a policy.
Hatrick said it is appropriate to have a disclaimer when a middle- or high-school play is frightening for an elementary-school child. "I wouldn't want to take a 5-year-old child into see Macbeth … with all of the violence in it."
Warren Geurin's proposed wording, "If depiction of sexual acts rises to the level of a warning, it shall be prohibited," also generated discussion. Hatrick questioned its meaning. "I'm not sure are we talking about copulation as a sexual act or are we talking about kissing … or holding hands as a sexual act," he said. "That’s where I have difficulty."
David Weintraub, president of Equality Loudoun, objected to the committee's final version of the drama policy. He charged that the committee members finally had to admit that they were not objecting to "sexual interaction," "depiction of sexual acts," or "sexual themes." Weintraub, who supported the play, said they had to admit they think a kiss between two people of the opposite sex is appropriate but an implied kiss between two people of the same sex is "lewd," "shameful," and possible even "obscene."
He said that viewpoint is discriminatory and illegal, "no matter what words they may try to disguise it with."
Weintraub said "Offsides" carried a strong message of compassion and personal integrity and conveyed that gay people are part of society and are entitled to the same respect, dignity and happiness as everyone else.
GLEN HOCHKEPPEL, Stone Bridge's drama teacher and coach, said, "I'm the one who OK'd the play."
He said he was not sure the new policy would have prevented the production of "Offsides," because he does not believe the content was obscene. "The disclaimer was not because of the prurient interest or obscenity," he said. "It was because of the very intense anger and harsh epithets that the hero's former friends hurl at him and his new friend."
Hochkeppel said it was "ironic" that people thought the disclaimer was meant as a warning against homosexuality. There was no sexual act. The implication was a kiss occurred, he said. "You could claim sexuality was in the play, because two homosexuals were in it. That's like saying any play with men and women has heterosexuality in it."
School Board member Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run), however, said the new policy requirement for the drama teachers and principals to review and approve the play prior to production would have had a bearing on "Offsides." If the policy were in place beforehand, the guidelines would have created a "chilling effect" that would have altered the decision to do the production, he said. He said the mere existence of policy would have served as a deterrent, and the policy's reference to "obscenity" would have stopped the play.
Obscenity is defined in the Virginia Code (18.2-372) as a dominant theme or purpose that appeals to a "prurient interest" in sex. Prurient interest, as defined by Webster's Dictionary, is marked by or arousing an "unwholesome interest or design, especially marked by … (an) unusual sexual desire."
William Chapman, the board's attorney, said the wording of the policy would prohibit obscenity, and it would allow other considerations in determining whether a play should be produced.
Under the new drama policy, Ohneiser said the students would have found it difficult to get "Offsides" approved, because it carried a disclaimer.
He said a teacher or sponsor who disregards the policy would be violation of the it. "If he breaches the regulations, he might run the risk of not being offered a contract next year," he said. "The risk of not being offered a contract is the chilling fact."
HATRICK CAUTIONED that it would be impossible to write a policy specific enough to meet every situation that could happen. That's why the superintendent writes a set of regulations to accompany the policy. A regulation comprises administration guidelines developed by the superintendent to give direction to staff for implementation of a School Board-adopted policy.
Hochkeppel said the regulations would have helped him in making a decision about the play, albeit not directly. He would have spent more time discussing its content with Principal Jim Person. The drama teacher said he probably would have made script changes that would have "left the essential message of tolerance and respect intact, while still respecting the views of some folks in our audience."
Person was not available for comment.
Hochkeppel said the public outcry over the issue has reawakened his sense of mission regarding community-based theater. He said he might still produce some plays that might not be suitable for elementary-aged children, because of its frightening nature. He plans to redouble his efforts to make the vast majority of the work is "absolutely for the whole family."
Jeri McGiverin of Mainstream Loudoun, said the organization supports the policy, because it places responsibility in the hands of education professionals and helps to avoid the constitutional problems associated with content censorship. Mainstream Loudoun is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving religious and personal freedom and to maintaining the separation of church and state.
Nuzzaco described the policy as a "significant, important step forward."
"It is well balanced. It respects the diversity of views in the committee and provides a standard for public schools in a pluralistic society," he said.
He said he was not completely satisfied, but he was not sure if he would try to amend the policy when it came to the full School Board for a vote.
Priscilla Godfrey (Blue Ridge) supported the new policy. She said the committee needed a policy that would respect the comments the board has received from both sides of the issue. "I don't want to see a lawsuit," she said. "This is indeed a tight rope we are walking."
The division superintendent shall develop and implement guidelines for the presentation of theatrical productions presented as part of the public-school curriculum. Those guidelines shall be designed to support drama presentations that challenge, nurture and extend student skills while adhering to the basic educational mission of teaching students boundaries of socially appropriate behavior, the rights and responsibilities of the exercise of the free speech, and the importance of taking into consideration the sensibilities of the community. Theatrical productions involving obscenity shall not be permitted. Disclaimers may not be used in place of observing this policy. The drama sponsor has primary responsibility and the principal has the final authority for ensuring that this policy is followed.