"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Involuntary Freedom of Expression

The good news for the students, teachers, and parents of Ocean Township? Superintendent Thomas Pagano did the right thing by allowing the production of "The Laramie Project."

The bad news is that it took the threat of busloads of protesters from New York for the superintendent to conclude that more of an" undue disturbance" could be caused by his censorship than his willingness to allow the show to go on. From the NY Times:

OCEAN TOWNSHIP, N.J. Aug. 10 — After a week of public outcry over the school district’s decision to block Ocean Township High School’s drama club from performing “The Laramie Project,” Superintendent Thomas M. Pagano decided Thursday to let the play go on this fall.

“People disagreed with my posture,” Mr. Pagano said, referring to the district’s earlier decision against the show. “I got no feedback from anybody who said, ‘We understand your position.’ ”

Mr. Pagano said he was willing to bear the brunt of the controversy, despite the fact that it was the school’s principal, Julia Davidow, who first raised objections in May to the play, which focuses on the 1998 beating and murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming.

“I am responsible for the community, the children and the board of education being in this position; therefore I have a responsibility for getting them out of it,” the superintendent said after meeting late Thursday with the drama club coach, Bob Angelini. (Ms. Davidow, who is recovering from double knee surgery, was not at the meeting.)

The play will be presented as an assembly for the high school and will also be performed there on three evenings in the first week in November.

Elated by the superintendent’s reversal, Mr. Angelini said he hoped that there would “not be any ill feelings toward anyone” and that the community would “let the students have the opportunity to present this wonderful play in the name of Matthew Shepard.”

In a flurry of e-mail exchanges with the drama coach beginning in May, Mr. Pagano and Ms. Davidow said that the play’s explicit themes and sometimes strong language had the potential to cause “undue disturbance” for the school and the community. They declined the choice and told Mr. Angelini to select another play. After Mr. Angelini went public with the messages last week, gay rights advocates from across the state and the country took up the cause.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay advocacy organization based in Montclair, N.J., said 2,000 of the group’s members sent letters to school officials in the last week protesting the district’s original decision. The group was also planning to bus in up to 1,000 people to rally at a coming school board meeting.

“Had this school district not allowed this play to go forward, it would have sent a chilling effect to schools across the state and country about doing any plays with homosexual themes,” Mr. Goldstein said.

Mr. Pagano acknowledged that he received many e-mail messages, mostly from outside Ocean Township. “It had reached the point where the universe was focused on this community,” he said. “It was time to move on.”

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