On Monday, the Flagler County School Board’s appeals committee will meet at Matanzas High School for the first—and only—time to decide the fate of To Kill a Mockingbird. Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Jacob Oliva and Superintendent Janet Valentine cancelled the student stage production last month.
The decision to cancel was based on still-unspecified fears that actors’ use of the word nigger on the stage of the Flagler Auditorium might cause trouble for the students and put their safety at stake. How, or why, and danger from whom: Oliva and Valentine never specified. But Oliva had made the original decision to cancel the play, saying he would not have approved it anyway had the drama teacher run the script by him first, and Valentine stood by the decision. With a few exceptions, the response from the public, faculty and students has been overwhelmingly—and at times bitterly—critical of the decision.
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The appeal was prompted by School Board member Colleen Conklin. “We should not let this define our district in such a negative way,” Conklin wrote in her formal appeal letter to Valentine. The committee will decide whether the play can be staged again, and in what circumstances. But its decision is advisory only. Valentine again makes the final decision, which itself can then be appealed to the school board.
The nine-member committee is made up almost entirely of school district personnel. The three exceptions are Lori Alter, a parent who chairs the School Advisory Council at Flagler Palm Coast High School, Rose Dywer, who chairs the Matanzas council, and Marc Ray, an executive at Hammock Dunes Club, a Matanzas parent and an unsuccessful candidate for the school board in the last election. The committee is chaired by Diane Dyer, the district’s curriculum director. Other members are Chris Pryor, principal at Matanzas; Monica Campana, media specialist at Indian Trails Middle School; and three faculty members from Matanzas: Carue Davis, a guidance counselor, Rachel Palmer, a music teacher, and Troy Caraballo, an ROTC teacher. Students are not represented. (The make-up of the committee is dictated by the district policy that made the appeal possible.)
Interviews with most of the committee’s members reveal an instinctive aversion for censorship, especially of a standard work of literature most have read or seen their children read and discussed with their children. But there are also dynamics in play that have nothing to do with respecting a work of art, censorship or letting students wrestle with issues of race.
There’s the matter of loyalty—to Oliva primarily, and to school district protocol. Principals don’t like their decisions second-guessed. And Oliva, appointed principal for the first time late last year, has felt severely wounded by the controversy’s evolution into a referendum on his decision. The committee’s decision, in other words, may hinge on loyalty to protocol, image or egos, as opposed to a decision over the merits of letting students say nigger on a public stage in the context of a play.
“To me personally, it’s not about the issue with the n-word,” Chris Pryor, the principal at Matanzas High School and a member of the committee, said. “That’s not the issue. The issue has become: does Mr. Oliva have the right to say what can be presented in his school, and yes, he does have the right to say that.”
But it’s equally true that principals’ decisions are second-guessed and appealed, with less visibility, whether they’re internal personnel matters or student disciplinary matters. The issue involving Mockingbird happens to be more public. Principals are not the final word in any district’s chain of command, though the debate over Mockingbird is affected as much by the public’s reaction to its cancellation as it is by the district’s intent to maintain control over its decision-making process. The two are entirely different issues. The committee will be trying to balance both.
Alter, who’s chaired the FPC advisory committee for the last three years and works closely with Oliva, made clear that for her, objectivity over the issue is more important than loyalty to a chain of command. “Even though I do admire him,” Alter said of Oliva, “I don’t want a kind of buck-stops-here situation. I’m going in objective.” Alter says she’s stayed away from discussing the matter or reading about it in order to keep an open mind before the meeting.
Rose Dwyer, the Matanzas council chair, addressed the same issue, putting great emphasis on deferring to the principal, with a caveat: “You can’t make a blanket statement and say if a rule is made by a principal, everybody has to follow it. You’d hope the decisions the principal makes are in line with the rules of the state or the rules of the school.” Dwyer’s emphasis is on school rules. (A scheduling conflict may prevent Dwyer from attending the committee meeting, at 9:15 a.m. Monday.)
An open mind is what every member of the committee interviewed stressed first, with a desire to “get all the facts.” Those facts, however, have themselves been a point of contention. What facts Valentine and Oliva have revealed about what led to the decision to cancel have been vague and contradictory, with not a single person—parent, faculty, student or others—specified as objecting to the play’s performance. Valentine, in an email to the board, mentioned two names as objecting to the play: Holsey Moorman, the Palm Coast City Council member, who later said he never contacted the district but was rather corralled into the controversy based on an informal hallway conversation he had with John Winston, a mentor in the district; and Winston himself, who told Valentine he’d support her whichever way she’d go, but who has also been the loudest voice of dread and caution over “racial tensions” at FPC that could be ignited if the play was staged. Winston, too, in an interview with FlaglerLive, never went beyond generalities.
Winston’s words—and charisma: his personality is imposing—have carried disproportionate weight in the district’s decision, even though not a single school official gives credence to Winston’s characterization of the school as a tense place. Oliva, Valentine and the chairman of the school’s advisory council more readily speak of harmony than tensions at the school, though Oliva—again, without specifying—has been saying that some parents have raised the issue of staging the play.
None of the members of the appeals committee who were interviewed saw Mockingbird in whatever rendition as anything less than a revealing work that edifies and challenges preconceptions.
“I’m not a fan of censorship in any form,” Marc Ray said. “I think that creates ignorance as opposed to enlightenment, but I don’t have all the facts yet either, so I will reserve judgment until I get the full disclosure.” Ray says he’s representing his two children—who are 14 and 16—as a parent on the committee. Both have read the book, as has Ray, who’s re-reading it ahead of the meeting. The book, like many others, is discussed openly in the household. In our house there’s not a lot that’s off limits, again education is a key part of life, we discuss everything. Our house is very open, and those that know me know that I don’t sugarcoat much,” Ray said. “I think anything that creates dialogue is a positive. I don’t view it as a negative.”
Monica Campana, who heads Indian Trails’ library, has been in the district since 2001. Only one book has been challenged in her years here—Monster, the Walter Dean Myers novel and Coretta Scott King Award winner and National Book Award nominee. Drug themes in the book upset a parent, who challenged the book’s presence on library shelves. “If you read the book in its entirety you came to the conclusion that drugs are bad, school is good, all those things,” Campana said. A school-based committee reviewed the book and turned down the challenge. The book stayed on the shelves.
Two copies of Mockingbird sit in Indian Trails’ library. Although it’s on the 9th grade curriculum, 8th graders who want to get ahead check it out and read it on their own, without a teacher’s preface, warning or “preparation.” It’s never been an issue. “Everybody has to look at their community, but we’re going to have to go in there with an open mind,” Campana said of her role on the committee. “I’m a librarian, of course censorship is anathema to be, but I’m going in there because I really need to see what their problem was with it.”
As a librarian who’d just finished marking Banned Book Week and a district employee familiar with rules and protocol, Campana is ideally positioned to weight both issues. She did. Her personal sense of the matter is “mixed,” she said, “because I totally understand the dilemma that the principal was facing in that he was worried about his community and protecting his students. You always have to look at your community. However, I also know no one is going to force anyone to go to this play, just like I don’t force anyone to borrow a book, so if someone finds it offensive they stay away. It’s like turning off the television. You have a choice, and that’s the beauty of this country.”
Diane Dyer, who will chair the committee and carry the weight of Valentine’s office, was part of the original committee that ruled against staging the play. She taught high school English for 22 years, and taught contentious books such as Huckleberry Finn and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, though not Mockingbird. She remembers one challenge during all those years, over Cuckoo’s Nest. “It was language all the way through the book, the family was very conservative and it was just something they didn’t want their son reading,” Dyer said. “So it was fine, he read something else.”
“Where would I like to see it go?” she said, queried about the appeals committee. “I’m not really sure. That’s what we’re going to find out in the committee. I think it could go in a number of different directions. I think it could be something that the principal has made a decision; it’s one direction. Another direction is that it could be performed for school groups. Another direction could be it’s performed in the spring, another direction is it’s performed next year. There are so many different paths it could take. That’s what the committee will decide. The committee actually won’t decide. Let me correct it: the committee will make a recommendation to the superintendent. She’ll make a recommendation to the board.”
The district may feel it’s in an unwinnable situation, especially if it rules again against staging the play. It may look for a compromise that saves face for the decision-making process (and Oliva) while appeasing the community—staging the play, but only internally, at the school, which would defeat the purpose of the drama club’s intentions: to stage public performances that showcase the school’s talents at the Flagler Auditorium.