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Jordan school board considers apology for high school play

First Published Jul 10 2012 09:39 pm • Last Updated Oct 30 2012 11:31 pm

West Jordan • The Jordan Board of Education on Tuesday clarified the school district’s stance on the death penalty, made plans to apologize for a Bingham High production of "Dead Man Walking" performed last spring and discussed changing its policy for how high school plays are selected.

The board engaged in a lengthy discussion at a study session before its regularly scheduled meeting in West Jordan, where several members said they received e-mails from parents who were shocked by what the play depicted and suggested future productions need to better reflect the community’s values.

At a glance

Teachers criticize negotiating process

Dozens of teachers from the Jordan School District overflowed the Jordan Board of Education meeting Tuesday night to express disgust with the process used for contract negotiations.

More than a dozen teachers signed up to address the board during the public comment period at the end of the meeting. The tense comments came as the board and the Jordan Education Association (JEA) remain at an impasse on a contract agreement for employees. Teachers received a one-time 2 percent bonus in November.

The school district offered to boost steps and lanes (pay that teachers receive for years of experience and education) next school year but said it would only increase pay for each subsequent school year if the Legislature set aside money for that specific purpose. The JEA believes that’s unlikely.

“We are concerned that the district’s unwillingness to consider salary increases for the 2013-14 school year puts the district at risk of losing quality teachers to surrounding school districts that are providing increases,” JEA President Jennifer Boehme has said, noting that Jordan teachers agreed to forgo salary increases in recent years.

The two sides will meet with a mediator in coming weeks.

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The play is based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who counseled a condemned killer before he was executed, and several parents weren’t aware that their children would be performing a storyline that contained violence and adult themes until attending the play, said board member Carmen R. Freeman.

Others who attended the production were upset it wasn’t "family friendly" and scary for younger children, he said. Freeman called for more parental involvement in the process to select high school plays. Currently, a school committee consisting of teachers and parents works to select a drama. A district committee also weighs in on the decision.

But in the case of "Dead Man Walking," only a committee at the school level met on the topic, apparently forgetting that the policy requires district approval after the school committee endorses a play.

Freeman suggested the district hold open forums where the public can comment on a selected drama before a school moves ahead with a performance. He said the district should post details about plays — and how they will be performed — on its website, so parents will have a full understanding of the production.

"What are [the students] going to be doing on that stage? Are they going to be running around half-naked? Are they going to be taking the Lord’s name in vain?" Freeman asked. "There needs to be some form of communication" where the public can voice their opinion on whether the play should be approved.

Board member Susan Pulsipher said its unknown whether "Dead Man Walking" would have been performed had policy been properly followed. The district committee could have vetoed the play, but never got the chance, she said.

During the meeting, Pulsipher also clarified the district’s position on the death penalty, a move necessary, she said, because some constituents felt confused by the political undertones of the play and wondered whether the district was trying to send a message about capital punishment. She said the district doesn’t support or oppose the death penalty.

"We’re sorry that some were left with confusion on that point," she said.

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She and board member Corbin White said the board needs to apologize to the public because the play was staged and the policy for approving the drama was not followed correctly. White suggested sending an apology letter out in materials that will soon be sent to parents and students about school registration for next fall. White also said he plans to attend the South Jordan City Council meeting to apologize for the "Dead Man Walking" performance.

"It’s the right thing to do. You did something wrong, you apologize, you move on," said White.

Board members called for changes to the district’s drama selection policy in the aftermath of objections expressed by the Eagle Forum, a state senator and parents who were outraged over the play’s content.

The conservative Eagle Forum issued a press release in June objecting to Bingham High’s performance, claiming the production was laden with profanity, sexual language, violence, racial slurs, bigotry, political bias and "inappropriate use of Biblical teachings."

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, presented board members with a letter imploring the district to issue an apology for staging the play and suggesting that more parents be involved in the selection process for school plays. Osmond also wrote that school productions should not "promote a specific political group" or political ideology. "Unfortunately the situation surrounding ‘Dead Man Walking’ at Bingham High School is now impacting the community trust," Osmond wrote.

Two board members — Peggy Jo Kennett and Leah Voohries — cautioned against the board acting too favorably toward restricting plays like "Dead Man Walking." Overly restrictive policies could make it hard to retain and recruit drama teachers to the school district, Voohries said. And community forums on what play should be performed could make the process cumbersome.

" If we make it too complicated for them to do their work, nothing will ever happen. No play will ever be put on," said Voohries.

Sandy Riesgraf, Jordan School District spokeswoman, has previously said the district fielded only one complaint about the play before the Eagle Forum issued its news release. More than 700 parents and patrons saw the play and expressed overwhelming support, she said.

Riesgraf said administrators at Bingham High approved the decision to perform the play. A committee of parents agreed after deciding to make a few edits to the script for language and content, with permission from the play’s author.

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