Last fall’s controversy over the staging of To Kill a Mockingbird by the Flagler Palm Coast High School drama department took the school principal and the school board by surprise in part because there was no procedure in place to deal with the issue. The school and the district improvised as they went along, fueling the controversy before resolving it. (After being canceled, the play will be staged in February.) The district has since been working on just such a procedure. Tuesday evening, the school board got its first look at the results—and stumbled over the same issue that fed into the controversy in the first place: how much unilateral power should a school principal have when opting to cancel a school production?
- The Proposed Policy and Procedure
- It’s On: FPC Will Stage To Kill a Mockingbird At the Flagler Auditorium Feb. 24-26
- Tale of Two Recommendations: Valentine “Completely” Supports Staging of Mockingbird
- National Coalition Against Censorship Urges Valentine To Reverse Mockingbird Decision
- Mockingbird Appeals Committee’s Challenge: Loyalty to “Protocol” vs. Free Expression
School board member Colleen Conklin and Student Representative Ryan McDermott—who sits on the board but has no voting power—don’t want that power to rest entirely with one principal, at least not when it comes to subjective issues of judgment over the “appropriateness” or “inappropriateness” of works of art. Board member Trevor Tucker and Matanzas High School Principal Chris Pryor don’t want principals to be second-guessed. Those lines were drawn Tuesday evening, preventing the proposed new guidelines from being approved as written. Board chairperson Sue Dickinson directed Conklin to bring back to the board a procedure she could live with.
The proposed policy itself appears to backtrack and contradict a committee’s finding that To Kill a Mockingbird is appropriate for staging by a high school troupe. The proposed policy acknowledges that guidelines developed by the superintendent “shall be 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 in consideration the sensibilities of the communities.”
That language appears to balance the daring productions and free expression with the sometimes necessary limits to the daring in a school setting. But the very next sentence in the policy, had it been in place before the Mockingbird controversy, would have prevented the play from going forward outright: “Theatrical productions involving obscenity […] shall not be permitted. Disclaimers may not be used in place of observing this policy.” Those two sentences would make the staging of any play, however worthy of artistic merit—including Mockingbird—off limits, the moment words like “nigger,” “shit,” “piss” or “damn” are deemed obscenities, whatever their context. That, in fact, was the argument that initially appeared to doom Mockingbird.
FPC Principal Jacob Oliva originally objected to the staging of Mockingbird because in his view the word nigger, used 23 times in the production, is an obscenity no matter how it’s used. Ed Koczergo, the drama teacher, had included a disclaimer in his audition call, and proposed including disclaimers on the play’s program. That’s actually how the play will be staged in February. But if the proposed policy holds, the disclaimers included as part of the play’s presentation will be in direct contravention of the policy.
Remarkably, the proposed policy drew no objections when the matter was discussed Monday. Only the procedure written in addition to the policy did, though the disagreement over the procedure has its seed in the policy.
The section of the procedure that drew Conklin’s and McDermott’s objection was this: “A principal may convene a panel to discuss the play as related to the guidelines above. If the work is student-generated, a student may be added to this panel. This will be an advisory panel only. The final decision on the play’s production will be the principal’s.” The procedure also would ban “plays with vulgar or lewd acts,” though it defines neither.
The word may, as opposed to shall (“a principal may convene…”), is what hung up the debate.
“My major concern is that we put forward a procedural manual that becomes so restrictive that in a sense we’re censoring anyway,” Conklin said. “That we become so scripted, so confined, in what would be appropriate or not appropriate that we are, by doing that, creating a sense of censorship, suppression of materials, whatever it might be.”
Diane Dyer, the curriculum director who wrote the procedure, downplayed the restrictions, calling them “guidelines.” Conklin didn’t buy it. “If we had gone through these guidelines, would To Kill a Mockingbird have been staged or not?” she asked. There never was a direct answer, though clearly, last fall, the answer was no: the principal did convene a school-based committee, discussions were held—with Dyer in that committee—and the decision was to kill the play. Had the matter not been publicized in the press, the district almost certainly would not have reversed course. Conklin fears that the procedure would formalize quiet censorship. “How do we even know that we’ve ever had an issue with this if the principal says no, we’re not doing that?” she asked. And what process would there be for an appeal? (It was Conklin’s own appeal of the school-based committee’s decision to kill Mockingbird that led to the play’s revival.)
The procedure leaves no avenue of appeal: “The final decision on the play’s production will be the principal’s.”
“What I would suggest,” McDermott said, is “just more than one person make the decision, because that’s more fair, that’s how this committee works, you know, six people on the board”—McDermott was either including himself or the superintendent in that equation—“you have to make some decisions, and I think the same should be true for a decision like that.”
Pryor, the Matanzas principal—who would have supported cancelling Mockingbird and sticking with that decision—didn’t like the direction of the discussion. A principal, he said, “does not make decisions in a vacuum.” The deliberative process is in play all along. But he was categorical: “I am ultimately responsible for everything that happens at that school,” he said. “So to say that we’re going to have a committee to second-guess what the principal is saying? The principal has the final say, and unless you override it, I don’t even think the board has the right to override. That’s not for me to decide.”
At that point Conklin had to ask Harriett Holiday, the personnel director, to stop audibly approving of everything Pryor was saying from the back of the chambers—a break of decorum on Harriett’s part that reflect the occasional strain between administrative writ and school board oversight: precisely the strain under discussion through the procedure on theatrical productions. Pryor continued: “If you begin doing this type of thing when you’re chipping away at the authority of the principal, then you’re beginning—other things will come along. So, you guys are going to do what you’re going to do, but if I’m ultimately responsible for what happens, I need to have the power to be able to say no or yes.”
“So Chris you think that this document is a means of us micromanaging, no? Be honest,” Dickinson said.
“I think so,” Pryor said.
“The idea behind this though is an appropriate idea,” Valentine, the superintendent, said, “because the idea behind this is giving a guideline to the teachers, that it’s not a surprise to you that all of a sudden the play is being performed. That’s the purpose of this.” Valentine prizes deliberative decision-making.
“But bottom line is, the board is responsible for the policy,” Dickinson said, redirecting Pryor’s buck-stops-here statement.
“Yes,” Pryor agreed. (Oliva, the FPC principal, was absent: he is working on a doctorate at the University of North Florida, and his classes at times coincide with board meetings.)
In the end, Conklin did not agree with the guideline as written. “I’m concerned with things like how do we define plays with vulgar and lewd acts? What exactly does that mean in the world of theater and art and all the rest of that.” She added: “When we look at this and look at statement number 2”—the segment of the procedure in question—“I think it is very dangerous to personalize it. This is not about Dr. Pryor or about Jacob. It can be about anybody and whether or not one individual has that right to say yea or nay, and a piece of instruction materials, art, whatever that might be I think becomes a very dangerous game, and I think we were trying to create a policy, and then guidelines for that policy, so we don’t find ourselves right back in the same situation again.”
“You need to bring us back a policy that you can agree with,” Dickinson told Conklin.