At a school board member’s request, the Flagler County school district will appoint an appeals committee to review the district’s decision to cancel a student production of To Kill a Mockingbird. The advisory committee will render a decision within 15 days, and possibly open the way to reviving the play, School Superintendent Janet Valentine said this evening.
School Board member Collen Conklin triggered the appeals process when, at 5 p.m. Monday, she discovered a district policy outlining the process to be followed “when the appropriateness of books or materials is questioned.” Conklin has been pressing since last week for avenues to revisit the play’s cancellation.
“I feel our district, our students and we are better than this,” Conklin wrote in the letter lodging the appeal. “We should not let this define our district in such a negative way.”
The policy doesn’t address such things as the cancellation of a play. It is designed to give parents or other complainants an avenue of lodging complaints against particular books or materials, rather than against decisions reached by district officials banning an item or, as in Mockingbird‘s case, canceling a play. But it’s the closest thing the district has to a policy addressing matters of content in dispute. Conklin, with help from the district, is essentially using the policy to object to an objection. The policy’s final clause enables an appeal all the way to the school board itself, should the complainant (in this case, Conklin) find no relief through the advisory council and the superintendent’s decision.
In other words, Conklin is not only triggering an appeal of the superintendent’s decision to another committee; she is potentially opening the way to an appeal to the board. That’s not likely: Valentine is as eager as Conklin to resolve the situation. Given the fallout from the play’s cancellation, a resolution short of the play’s return in some fashion, especially with Conklin’s appeal process in motion, would amount to little.
Valentine and Flagler High School Principal Jacob Oliva canceled the play late last month, three weeks into the high school drama production’s rehearsals, when objections were raised about the use of the n-word in the play. It’s not clear who first raised those objections: no individual has been named, though Valentine says a parent made a call. No students in the play objected, though many have spoken critically of the decision to cancel their work. The principal and the district also emphasized that the play’s director, a drama teacher at the school, didn’t follow protocol when he chose the play: he didn’t vet the script through the administration, although the play’s courtroom scene (replete with mentions of the n-word), was performed by the high school drama club, in public, in 2002.
The cancellation provoked considerable protest against the decision within and beyond the school: faculty criticized the decision, as have prominent members of the community, black or white, among them former School Board member Jim Guines and attorney Sid Nowell, both black. On the board, Conklin and fellow member Andy Dance spoke openly of wanting to see the play revived later this year, given the proper preparation.
The policy specifies who will serve on the committee. It will likely be led by Diane Dyer, the district’s head of curriculum, and include Chris Pryor, the principal at Matanzas High School, a secondary-school media specialist, a curriculum supervisor, three high school teachers and two parents of high school students. Valentine will make the appointments. Her preference is to take the process out of Flagler Palm Coast High School altogether, meaning that the committee will not include FPC parents or faculty. The committee is advisory: Valentine can overrule it, and the final decision is hers. But she stressed that she was going into the process with an open mind, and was looking to resolve the issue favorably–meaning to have the play staged.
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“At this point I think that we’ve heard from the community,” Valentine said. ” I want to make sure that we have good representation on this committee and that we’re looking at all aspects of it again, because from day one we said this is too fast, it wasn’t done in the right way, and we’re going to revisit this. So I’m going in there with an open mind, and I know the people we choose to be on that committee will do the same thing. We want to make the best decision possible.”
Valentine was asked if that made a revival more hopeful. “Sure,” she said. “There is always hope.”
In a reflection of the somewhat frantic tempo of the debate since the play’s cancellation, Conklin, in a hurry to ensure that the matter be addressed through the school board tonight, quickly hand-wrote her letter earlier this evening “officially requesting to activate the appeal process regarding the decision” to cancel To Kill a Mockingbird. She reiterated her desire to see the play performed.
So did Dance. “My hope is that we would come to a discussion point where we would be able to allow the play to occur,” he said. “Maybe this is one way to jump start that.”
School Board Chairperson Evie Shellenberger, who’d just been paid a tribute by her fellow board members for her last meeting before retiring, spoke of having gone to many school plays where audiences are slim to none beyond friends and family, and those required to attend the plays. “Truthfully, the public does not support our high school theater. I wish they would,” Shellenberger said, ” and I hope that whatever decision is made, I hope the public will have a change of heart and start coming to the high schools, both high school productions, middle school productions, elementary school productions and supporting their children. You know, it’s very easy to sit back and play armchair quarterback. It’s so easy to do that, especially when you don’t have to do it face to face, when you can just type it, but OK, you’ve said your peace, let’s put your money where your mouth is, depending on what the decision is, and come out, spend your $8 or $12 and support these kids, because they are good, they are very good. Anything good comes out of this, I hope that’s it, that we fill those auditoriums when these kids put all that work into their production.”