There will not after all be a school policy explicitly regulating or protecting controversial student plays such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
In confusing and still unsettled maneuvers, the Flagler County School Board on Tuesday voted to advertise two minor changes to existing policies on challenged and instructional materials instead. The move effectively kills a previous, proposed policy that called on the superintendent to develop guidelines “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 free speech, and the importance of taking into consideration the sensibilities of the community.”
The move diminishes transparency and shifts power back to school principals, who again have wider latitude to forbid plays without the matter gaining wider knowledge or including other voices.
- Between Authority and Authoritarianism: Conklin and Pryor Clash Over Principal Power
- Tale of Two Recommendations: Valentine “Completely” Supports Staging of Mockingbird
- Mockingbird Appeals Committee’s Challenge: Loyalty to “Protocol” vs. Free Expression
- It’s On: FPC Will Stage To Kill a Mockingbird At the Flagler Auditorium Feb. 24-26
A drama teacher could propose staging “Hairspray” or “Cabaret” in conversation with a principal, be told no on both counts, and that would be the end of the discussion. School Board member Colleen Conklin late last year was opposed to giving principals the last word, fearing it would chill creativity from the outset as drama teachers, should they be faced with more narrow-minded or skittish principals in middle or high school, would opt for safer, tamer plays as a rule. Conklin blocked a set of procedures that did not give others in the school, including possibly students, at least an advisory voice when controversial plays are at stake. Aside from student board member Ryan McDermott, who has no vote, the school board lent Conklin little to no support, though School Board Chairwoman Sue Dickinson suggested to Conklin to write her own version of a policy or guidelines Conklin would find acceptable.
“My feeling was that when I looked at the guidelines, it actually created that scenario that the teacher would not be comfortable to bring forward an appeal process,” Conklin said Tuesday, before the meeting. “I didn’t like the policy or the guidelines. The more I thought about it the more I thought about how bureaucracy is created by the layering of policies, and I thought, I really don’t want to be part of that. And if you really think about it, if you step back and think about what happened to ‘Mockingbird,’ in a sense the appeals process really worked.”
Text of the Policies in Question:
- Policy 414: Challenged Materials
- Policy 410: Instructional Materials Selection
- Proposed Policy and Procedures on Drama Productions (Killed)
In a sense, yes, but only by chance, not by design. In the case of “Mockingbird,” Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Jacob Oliva stopped the student production last October when it was in rehearsals, citing the word nigger as inappropriate for use on stage. Oliva and Superintendent Janet Valentine picked an informal and school-based committee that backed his decision, though none of those steps was publicized. The matter would have died had the decision to censor the play not been leaked to the press. Public outrage at the decision led Conklin to appeal the committee’s decision. An appeals committee then found “Mockingbird” to be an appropriate play for staging, and suggested “that the district develop policy and procedures for school productions.”
The school board is now rejecting that suggestion, too. (The play, however, will be staged after all: it’s scheduled for four performances at the Flagler Auditorium, Feb. 24-26.)
The proposed guidelines, Conklin said, “would have been much more suppressive than the policy that we have now, that simply needed to be well define,” because the guidelines, too, shifted power to the principals, who would have had all discretion to convene or not convene committees in case of controversy. Matanzas High School Principal Chris Pryor last month bitterly opposed procedures that would “second-guess what the principal is saying.”
So here’s what the school board agreed to do. In the existing policy on challenged materials (policy 414), the opening line–“The following procedures shall be followed when the appropriateness of books or materials is questioned” was changed to replace the word books with instructional (“The following procedures shall be followed when the appropriateness instructional materials is questioned).
In the policy on instructional materials selection (policy 410), a line was added to more clearly define the meaning of instructional materials to read: “Instructional material includes textbooks, workbooks, software, movies, performances, multimedia, and other items that are used as tools for instruction.”
School Board member Andy Dance also suggested making a change to the district’s copyright policy, so that whenever a teacher puts in a request or a purchase order to get the rights to a copyrighted work, the principal must sign off. That change would be designed to prevent a teacher from acquiring rights to a play that a principal would find objectionable. It would also be another quiet tool for principals to use, without publicity, to prevent plays they don’t like from being performed. Dance’s turn-about on the board has been sharp: when controversy originally arose over “Mockingbird,” he lent his public support to the staging of the play once he saw that public sentiment clearly was in favor of staging it. He has since retreated to a harder line, preferring to defer to principals’ judgment.
It isn’t the first time Dance has gone where prevailing winds are: he was also opposed to continuing a school tax and favored instead replacing it with an economic-development tax favored by the chambers of commerce, until he detected that public sentiment was staunchly opposed to the latter and more favorable toward the school tax. Dance then switched sides. On the “Mockingbird” issue, Dance’s switch essentially left Conklin isolated, as school board members Trevor Tucker and John Fischer are with Pryor’s take on a principal’s role: the buck stops with a principal.
Despite the “tweaks,” as she described them, to two existing policies and the apparent repeal of the proposed guidelines on drama productions, Conklin said: “I don’t know if this is the best way to go, either.”
After the meeting Tuesday, Valentine, the superintendent, said new guidelines for theatrical productions would still be developed and presented to the board for approval. That may yet bring the matter of principal power versus broader input back to the board: that’s where the issue had been hung up earlier last month.
The changes to the policies themselves have not yet been formalized: the district must advertise the change for at least 30 days, giving the public a chance to weigh in on the proposals–a process that seldom gains attention: the actual policies and the changes are not, in fact advertised. A legal advertisement noting the title and number of the policies being changed runs in the News-Journal for one day, notifying the public that the changes may be examined at the district office. The board then approves the policies, usually without discussing them again, as part of its “consent agenda,” where it votes on a dozen or more issues wholesale.