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Dr. Gary Richards’ remarks at the April 12 meeting of the Wilton Board of Education

Tonight we have heard from some members of the public in response to the decision regarding the current Iraq Play controversy. I would like to share some comments on this matter that I prepared in advance of tonight’s meeting. My intent is to set forth some facts that the media may not have mentioned or that may have been overlooked by some members of the public. I will:

1. Discuss, briefly, my views on the issue of roles and responsibilities with respect to policy making and administration;

2. Present some facts about this matter; and

3. Outline some next steps.

Roles and Responsibilities

In recent days, some have called for the Board to intervene and rescind Mr. Canty’s decision, to conduct investigations, and to review his performance.

Let me share some information on roles and responsibilities of Boards of Education.

Local boards of education are arms of the State of Connecticut and as such, their powers and duties are prescribed by statute. One of the major duties of a local board of education is to develop the policies for the school district.

Boards of education act through the superintendent of schools. State statute provides that the superintendent has “executive authority over the school system and the responsibility for its supervision.” In other words, the superintendent has the overall responsibility for the day to day operation of the school system. In discharging that responsibility, the superintendent is guided by applicable state and federal statutes and the policies which the board of education has developed.

Some have called for the Board of Education to override Mr. Canty’s decision to postpone the play. It is not the role of the Board of Education, to overturn administrative decisions. The issue is whether the intent of the Board’s policy has been carried out at the administrative level. I believe the Board understands the concern expressed by many over this decision. I cannot speak to whether or not Board members have policy concerns related to this matter.

Some have called upon the Board of Education to establish guidelines for when students’ free speech rights can be limited. Again, I would go on record to state that this would not be a course of action that I would recommend to this board of education.

Courts, not local boards of education, interpret the United States Constitution. It is these same courts which have given school officials the authority to regulate student speech in school activities. As I previously stated, the Board has policy guidelines for addressing controversial issues. Also, the Wilton schools’ standards and procedures governing academic programs and student conduct are outlined in various documents including the Wilton Public Schools Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, Wilton High School Student Handbook, and the Wilton High School Program of Studies.

Facts

Over the past several weeks, a great many statements have been made about this controversy. As is often the case when controversies arise, perspectives can get distorted and the truth can become a casualty. Let me share some facts about this matter that I think are essential:

1. Each year, the Advanced Theatre Arts class works on a class project that is ultimately performed in a small venue. This year, the idea for having students do a play on the Iraq War was presented by Ms. Dickinson and approved, in concept, by Mr. Canty.

2. There are clear guidelines, set forth in WPS Board Policy 6144, that address the way we are to handle “Controversial Issues in the Curriculum”. These guidelines are not intended to stifle freedom of speech, but rather guarantee that students are given “…competent instruction balancing the various points of view in an atmosphere free from bias and prejudice.”

3. There are limits to freedom of speech and expression in public high schools. School officials and teachers have the right to set limits with respect to language, violence, sexual content etc. In the words contained in the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court in the leading case on school-sponsored speech, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988):

“…, a school may in its capacity as publisher of a school newspaper or producer of a school play “disassociate itself,” Fraser, 478 U.S., at 685 , not only from speech that would “substantially interfere with [its] work . . . or impinge upon the rights of other students,” Tinker, 393 U.S., at 509, but also from speech that is, for example, ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences. A school must be able to set high standards for [484 U.S. 260, 272] the student speech that is disseminated under its auspices – standards that may be higher than those demanded by some newspaper publishers or theatrical producers in the “real” world – and may refuse to disseminate student speech that does not meet those standards. In addition, a school must be able to take into account the emotional maturity of the intended audience in determining whether to disseminate student speech on potentially sensitive topics, which might range from the existence of Santa Claus in an elementary school setting to the particulars of teenage sexual activity in a high school setting.

4. There has been a long tradition of administrative support for the arts at Wilton HS. We have not avoided controversial issues, and have put on, during Mr. Canty’s tenure as Principal, productions like The Laramie Project, and The Beard of Avon.

5. Mr. Canty has never “banned” a performance of this play. As he said to the students when he met with them on March 13th, it was his judgment that the play was far from being ready and could not be performed this semester. He had further concerns that there was no attribution of sources and that no context or background had been established for the work.

He made the decision after judging that the amount of work could not be accomplished in the time remaining in the semester and in light of the fact that we were approaching spring break, the Spring Musical, AP exams, etc. He encouraged the students to continue working on the project in hopes that it could be performed at some future date.

6. The teacher, Ms. Dickinson, said (in the March 29th edition of the Wilton Bulletin) that “Voices in Conflict” wasn’t even close to being done. ”

7. Mr. Canty has repeatedly offered support and has faculty members ready to help do the work necessary to make this into a performance that would meet expected standards.

8. The district has made it clear that if Ms. Dickinson and the students want to perform this play in a private venue outside the school, that they have every right to do so. It is my understanding that there are some plans to perform this work outside of Wilton.

9. There has likewise been a tradition of encouraging discussion of controversial issues. Interestingly one example of this was seen on the very first day of the Iraq War. We held a WHS school forum on the background to the war and students were exposed to a debate over s the pro’s and con’s of the U.S. getting into the war. Discussion of the war routinely occurs in social science classrooms.

10. At several points during the past few weeks, Mr. Canty has expressed his support for those students who have protested his decision. His main concern is that we all model ways of disagreeing with one another’s views without being disagreeable.

11. There have been a number of drafts circulating about town. Please note that one website

(www.freewebs.com/voicesinconflict) took the script off. The school administration had absolutely no role in this.

12. It is a fact that throughout this controversy, the administration has expressed the hope that this work could be performed.

Where are we headed with “Voices in Conflict”?

At this time I would like to share a statement that we have given to the reporters present this evening:

“Mr. Canty’s decision to postpone a second semester performance of a project being developed by Wilton High School’s Advanced Theater Arts class called “Voices in Conflict”, a devised piece that uses the words of United States soldiers and Iraqi citizens to discuss the Iraq war, has centered on the question of not if, but when, students would perform the project. In his decision on March 13th, Mr. Canty expressed concern that the days remaining in the second semester would not allow sufficient time to complete a project that met curriculum standards and that could be performed in a context that provided appropriate background and support.

Throughout the past month, the administration has repeatedly voiced its commitment to finding ways of turning this production into a valuable learning experience. With that end in mind, we have received generous offers of support from our Wilton High School staff. Faculty members representing departments across the school have expressed a willingness to work on helping complete a project that meets instructional guidelines. Although the end of the 2006-2007 school year is fast approaching, this effort by the faculty has created a climate where the project has an increased likelihood of being completed in the second semester.

The Wilton Board of Education policy and regulations dealing with controversial issues in the curriculum outlines a process that will be followed when concerns around an instructional issue have not met satisfactory resolution at the building level. With the complex questions that have been raised in discussion of the “Voices in Conflict” project, it is appropriate that the steps outlined in these regulations be followed in this matter.

When the project is completed, a review committee led by Deborah Low, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, will be appointed to determine that the project meets curriculum standards and can be performed in a context that provides appropriate background and support. The review committee will consist of administrators and faculty from subject areas related to this project.

We sincerely believe this approach can bring a satisfactory resolution in this matter that will best serve the interests of Wilton High School students.”

Some final comments:

The overwhelming focus of critical commentary about the administration’s decision to postpone this presentation has focused on the belief that this decision represents an egregious violation of freedom of speech.

I respectfully disagree. The decision to postpone the performance was based on the expectation that the work meet the standards that would be expected in any classroom. It was also made based on a concern about putting this content out to students absent the contextual framework that we expect in any class. Something that has been overlooked was that this was also a decision made in the context of a community grieving the loss of one of its sons while feeling great anxiety about those who are currently in harm’s way.

The administration has the right and the duty to make decisions, even unpopular ones, about the content of material that is placed before the students it serves. The decision in this instance is not part of any pattern of heavy-handed behavior.

The administration is not – in any way- trying to prevent students from learning about this war. This war has and will continue to be the subject of rigorous discussion and debate. We have a professional obligation not to inculcate our views on this war, but to provide our students with the intellectual tools needed to weigh the evidence surrounding this public policy question and to make up their own minds.

It has been suggested that the play (in any form) be performed without oversight because it is artistic expression and it’s ok to let the chips fall where they may in terms of audience reaction. Producers of private and professional performances have this liberty. In contrast, public schools are responsible for both the content of the performance and the impact of the performances on the audiences. We have a duty to consider the impact of any educational experience.

Many have opined about the impact that the decision to postpone performance of this play has had on our students.

Over the past week, some have jumped to conclusions (based on misleading, inaccurate or ambiguous information) and have taken it upon themselves to heap insults on the school administration. As a public official, I understand that our decisions are always subject to criticism. My concern, and the concern of many, is that the tone of some criticism here has been downright nasty. We continue to believe that while people of good will may have differences, understanding is better promoted by respectful dialog, not personal attacks. We will continue to work with parents and students on all sides of this issue in a professional and respectful manner.

We have a long-standing commitment to teaching our young people to think critically. We also believe that it is essential that they learn how to engage in public discourse in a manner that encourages respect and civility. There are certainly many possible lessons that we can take from this experience, our hope is that this is one of them.

Published in the Wilton Bulletin, May 31, 2007. © Copyright 2007 by Hersam Acorn Newspapers.

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