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Revised school board policy supports artistic freedom

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Almost a year after a censored high school student-written play sparked a community controversy, the Yellow Springs Board of Education on Jan. 8 approved a revised board policy that clarifies that audience members will be given notice and the opportunity to leave if a play is deemed potentially offensive.

The move had been recommended by Yellow Springs High School Principal John Gudgel.

The policy was not so much a change in past practice as an official acknowledgement that the high school will provide disclaimers on art works that might offend audience members, whether they be plays, publications or exhibits. The action came down on the side of preserving high school students’ artistic freedom, and against censorship, according to several persons involved in the lengthy process of determining how the schools should handle potentially offensive material.

“The Theater Arts Board’s position was to support the students’ freedom of expression, and we were happy with the outcome,” said Mary Beth Burkholder of the Yellow Springs Theater Arts Board, who was a member of a committee that met over several months to address the issue.

Along with the policy revision to include disclaimers for offensive material, the board approved guidelines that call for earlier communication between coordinators of the one-acts, playwrights and administrators, so that there is less chance for last-minute conflicts, Gudgel said in an interview.

The school principal has final authority on one-acts, and may request revisions if offensive material in student-written plays is deemed gratuitous, Gudgel said. However, he said, gratuitous material is rare in the one-acts.

“We recognize that when our kids are writing plays, they usually have a mission,” he said.

The issue became a local controversy last February, when one play in the annual production of one-act plays written by Yellow Springs High School students was deemed offensive. The play, “Cat Calls,” was a satirical look at chauvinistic male attitudes toward women written by then-YSHS senior Peter Keahey. The play had not been available for review by school administrators until shortly before scheduled production, a situation that added to the difficulty, administrators said at the time. School Superintendent Norm Glismann was new to the job, and, along with Gudgel, asked Keahey to revise the play to delete language and attitudes deemed inappropriate. Keahey refused, and chose instead not to perform the play.

In previous years, administrators had not requested that students revise their works; rather, potentially offensive plays were labeled as such in the program.

The censorship sparked a passionate presentation by the students, who, in the time they would have performed Keahey’s play, instead made a plea for artistic freedom. The event also prompted letters to the editor in the News, and many villagers attended a school board-sponsored forum on the issue, with most parents, teachers and students speaking in favor of artistic freedom. Next, Gudgel convened a committee of teachers, parents, students, community members and school board members to decide how to handle offensive material.

According to Board of Education President Aïda Merhemic, who was on the committee along with board member Sean Creighton, all in the group favored allowing artistic freedom to young people.

“It seemed like a group of people who were wanting to look out for the students,” Merhemic said in a recent interview. “We were all on the same page from the get-go.”

Other committee members were YSHS and McKinney teachers Desiree Nickell and Aurelia Blake, former play directors Andrea Auten and Jill Wells, Theater Arts Board members Burkholder and Theresa Mayer, community members Karen Durgans and Meg Halpin and student Anna Forster.

In a recent interview, Nickell, who teaches senior English, commended Gudgel on convening the committee. Nickell now includes one-act play writing in her senior level English class.

In other school board business:

• School board members approved a Meeting of the Whole for Thursday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. to address community concerns regarding the use of drug dogs in the high school.

In November Gudgel had sent a letter to parents stating that the dogs would be brought in to the high school to look for hidden drugs. The letter has sparked concerns, and board members stated that concerned parents, students and community members should have an opportunity to express themselves. The Meeting of the Whole was rescheduled from its normal time a week earlier, Jan. 22, because a YSHS PTO forum on the same topic will take place at McGregor on Wednesday, Jan. 21.

There is confusion in the community regarding the role of the school board, Sean Creighton said at the meeting. Many parents believe the board will vote on the drug dog issue, but the board will not vote. The board’s role was to set the general policy of having drug-free schools, and it is the principal’s perogative to use the appropriate means to reach that goal, school board members said.

However, board members emphasized that it is incumbent on the board and school administrators to address community concerns, including whether drug dogs are an effective tool for addressing drug use, and what other means of drug detection are available.

“We need a strong presentation,” Merhemic said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

• Board members addressed many beginning-of-the-year administrative matters. Merhemic was unanimously re-elected as president and Anne Erickson was unanimously elected vice president of the board. Creighton will serve as legislative liaison anhd Student Achievement liaison, and Richard Lapedes will again be the board representative on the Greene County Career Center board. Merhemic will represent the board on the YSHS Student Review board and in negotiating insurance, along with Erickson, who will be the board’s representative on the Yellow Springs Endowment for Education. Angela Wright and Lapedes will be board representatives on the open enrollment committee, and Wright will represent the board on the music committee.

District Treasurer Joy Kitzmiller was authorized to sign checks, pay bills and invest excess cash with US Bank and with Fifth/Third Bank.

• Board members heard a presentation on the Wright State University STEM school by Wright State Dean of Education Greg Bernhardt and Matt Grushon.

The school, which will focus on science, technology and engineering, will open in the fall of 2009, according to Bernhardt, who is overseeing the school. One of eight proposed STEM schools to be partially funded by the state, the Dayton area school will open with 80 to 100 ninth-grade students to be drawn from Montgomery, Clark and Greene counties, Bernhardt said. Students will be chosen by lottery rather than by academic achievement, and the deadline for the initial lottery drawing is March 2. Interested persons can find out more at http://www.daytonstemschool.org.

Other funding will come from a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and from local corporations, according to Bernhardt. The STEM school will be a public school.

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