Talk about splitting hair.
In a decision stunning for its lack of direction, the appeals committee convened Monday to decide the fate of To Kill a Mockingbird in Flagler County schools punted on the explicit issue of whether the play should be staged. The committee instead declared the play and the work appropriate for high school students—a matter never in doubt, since the novel is taught in ninth grade, the movie is often shown, and the book itself is on middle school and high school library shelves. (For a minute-by-minute transcript of the committee’s deliberations, go here.)
The question of whether To Kill a Mockingbird may be staged at the Flagler Auditorium by Flagler Palm Coast High School’s drama club, as originally intended before the district scrapped those plans, has not been addressed. That question wasn’t the committee’s responsibility, Diane Dyer, the highest-ranked district representative and the chairperson of the committee, said. Dyer is the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.
“People were confused right from the beginning,” Dyer said after the meeting. “Although I heard people say and I read that the committee will decide on whether or not the production will take place, that was never the purpose of the committee, and never what the superintendent formed the committee to do.” She added: “Whether she would like to go further and talk about the production, you’d have to ask her. It would be her decision.”
That was news to several members of the committee—and to Colleen Conklin, who filed the appeal that triggered the committee’s formation.
“What I was appealing was whether or not the literary piece was produced,” Conklin said. “The only question on the table was whether or not Mockingbird could be produced. That’s what this is about, for God’s sake—is it produced or is it not produced?”
Two members of the committee—Lori Alter, the FPC School Advisory Council chairperson and Monica Campana, media specialist at Indian Trails Middle School—said after the meeting that they were entirely surprised by the turn of events. They came to the committee prepared to decide the fate of the play, assuming that the validity of the work itself has never been in question in Flagler schools, at least not in the past decade (Campana noted during the meeting that one value to putting Mickingbird in context was that Flagler schools were segregated until 1967, seven years after the publication of the book).
Marc Ray, another member of the committee (he’s the parent of two Matanzas High School students and an executive at Hammock Dunes Club), and a strong advocate of letting the play be staged, disagreed that the committee’s decision lacked direction. “I came away with a completely different understanding I thought the committee was very clear that the book in all forms, including the play, should be allowed. Censorship is still censorship, and because it makes people uncomfortable is exactly why we should be using it,” Ray said. “From what I saw, through endorsing the work, everything associated with the work, whether it’s a play or any other format was also endorsed because of that. So I didn’t see it as a punt. That’s disheartening if that’s the perception, because that wasn’t what I left the room with.”
Ray said he would have “gladly expounded further had we been asked,” but that wasn’t the committee’s scope. (Ray noted during the committee meeting that he’d spoken to some 100 people about Mockingbird in the lead-up to today’s meeting. Not one, he said, was opposed to the staging of the play.)
Ray, like other members of the committee, never knew that scope until this morning, when Ray asked for it to be defined. Previously, the committee members had simply received copies of Act I and II of the play by mail and instructions to convene at Matanzas Monday morning.
Dyer made the limited scope of the committee’s responsibility as explicit as she could when Ray raised the question: “It is not about the production, it is not about the decision” to cancel the original production, she said, “it is about whether or not it’s appropriate to use. We’ll make that recommendation to the superintendent, whether we feel it’s appropriate or not appropriate to be used in a high school. She then either takes the recommendation, or decides not to take that recommendation. She then makes a recommendation to the school board, and the school board has the final say.”
When Campana asked whether the committee could go beyond yea or nay and include recommendations on how the play could be presented, such as statements that could be presented prior to the play being staged, Dyer said: “We can make recommendations about in what context the play would be used, or what context the play would be instructional material.”
Ray intervened: “I don’t believe that’s in the purview of the polity,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to establish the objective. The objective is to establish whether the material is appropriate or not, full stop. If it’s beyond that, then let’s change the objective.”
It’s a matter of interpreting the scope of the committee’s recommendation. Ray interprets it broadly. “My understanding was that it was clearly appropriate material for high school kids. That includes plays, that includes dialogue, that includes classroom. I don’t think you can split hairs and say yes you can do it here but not here.”
Yet the actual recommendation’s wording, while simple, doesn’t appear to go that far, and leaves it up to the superintendent and the school board to interpret. Here’s the actual recommendation of the committee, according to Dyer: “To Kill a Mockingbird is appropriate instructional material for use by high school students.” That’s it. There will also be a note appended to the recommendation: “The committee further suggests that the district develop a policy and a procedure to cover student productions, because policy 414 does not cover that.”
In discussions, the committee did wrestle with the issue of the play, its staging and its reception by the community. It just as clearly took positions. Five of the nine members (Ray, Campana, Alter, Rachel Palmer, a music teacher at Matanzas, and Rose Dwyer, Matanzas’s advisory council chairperson) were opposed to censoring the play and favored staging it—as long as it was prefaced with disclaimers, statements or other creative ways of informing the audience of what was ahead. Campana suggested that the actor who plays Bob Ewell, the bigoted father of the white woman alleged to have been raped by the black handyman, stand before the audience and say that his character will be using the word nigger.
Carue Davis, a guidance counselor at Matanzas, and Troy Caraballo, an ROTC teacher there, were uncomfortable with students’ staging of the play. “I’m uncomfortable by the presentation of the play,” Davis said. “I would be uncomfortable, offended, if I were a member of the audience.” But, Ray said, she wouldn’t have to go: unlike class discussions or films involving the book, no one would be forced to attend the play.
Dyer didn’t take a position during the meeting, though afterward she said she was “absolutely” in favor of staging the play the way the five approving members of the committee had discussed it—with disclaimers and such. Chris Pryor, the Matanzas High School principal who also sat on the committee, was unclear. Asked afterward if he favored the staging of the play, his answer was: “A definite maybe.” Pryor’s hesitancy is reflective of his position, and the precedents being set (or not).
The committee’s make-up was heavily slanted toward representing the school and administrative perspective—and to rally around administrative decisions without second-guessing them. Conklin, who addressed the committee at the beginning of the meeting, wanted to ensure that the question be limited to the play itself—not to be tainted by administrative issues.
And Jacob Oliva himself—the principal at FPC who’s taken severe criticism for his role in the decision that led to the cancelling of the play—spoke almost effusively of his willingness to see the play staged with some preparation, with the community—not merely as an internal school function.
“We believe that To Kill a Mockingbird is appropriate for high school students. This was never our challenge,” Oliva told the committee, underscoring again that it wasn’t the committee’s challenge, either. “Our literature classrooms teach this work across the curriculum as it provides a great learning opportunity for our students. We readily acknowledge the content of the novel and play, while sensitive in nature, is suitable for students and study at Flagler Palm Coast High School. Safety of our students is our primary concern. The community’s decision (sic.) to stop production of this play had this concern as our priority. With the different questions and concerns coming into the high school revolving around this performance, we did not feel that the proper foundation had been laid to ensure the success of this production. We look forward to the opportunity when the community can join us to celebrate this literary work. With the proper time to prepare and take into consideration the powerful messages of this work, FPC embraces this great learning opportunity. We deeply regret if a negative shadow has been cast on the school or the school district. Every decision made throughout the process was made with what we feel is the best students’ interest. We are committed to becoming a world class high school and we look forward to moving on in this matter.”
Conklin had framed the issue this way to the committee: “How our district has been portrayed is devastating to me, on both the professional and personal level,” Conklin said. “We have no choice but to come back and address it, and address it in a very aggressive manner, and I felt the appeals process was the only way to do that. So I hope you understand the background. Unfortunately I’ve heard some comments made about this turning into a situation where it’s the school board or a member versus not supporting the administrator. I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that has nothing to do with this. We have outstanding administrators in this school district. This is about a defining moment for our district, and the reputation of this district, and a school board has every right to interject itself in that discussion. So I have great faith that the only question on the table today for all of you to really deal with, is this classic piece of literature appropriate for Flagler County School District for it to be read, produced, and shown? That’s it, nothing else. Appropriate, or not. And the issue with censorship. I have no doubt you’ll make the right decision.”
If the committee didn’t make that decision explicit, it may be left to the school board to do so.
While Conklin despairs that the issue may not remove the pall from Flagler’s reputation, Ray is more hopeful. “I’m comfortable that this will get to where it needs to go,” Ray said, “that there are good people who will make the right decision. There was a mistake made, it is what it is, and it will recover. I would be shocked if that was taken as a punt.”