Havre de Grace High School has a program called Drama Therapy that was developed with good intentions and is promoted by Harford County Public Schools. So why are parents having such a hard time getting access to the content?
Drama Therapy takes the form of short plays addressing serious issues like incest, teen suicide, sexual abuse, recovered memories and substance abuse. The plays are performed by Havre de Grace HS students and some of the plays are written by the school’s students or alumni. The plays have been presented to students during the school day and to the public in an evening performance.
According to the HCPS newspaper, Harford Schools, Drama Therapy was jointly developed by Havre de Grace HS teachers and school counselors. Clearly, Drama Therapy was planned to be more than entertainment.
Co-developer and drama teacher Mark Cummins wrote in the program for this year’s performance that he sought help from the Guidance Department from the beginning, “since the play’s issues are directly related to their counseling duties.” He goes on to urge anyone, but especially students, “dealing with any of these issues that are brought up in these plays…” to contact the school guidance counselors. Contact information is on the back cover of the program. In the past, counseling for students was reportedly also offered through the Harford County Health Department.
Drama Therapy was expected to prompt reactions from some students that would require counseling. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable for parents to expect a heads up.
But in the following letter to The Dagger, Havre de Grace HS parent Rachel Tate writes that the school did not notify parents or gain their consent prior to the presentation of Drama Therapy at a mandatory general assembly on December 4, 2009. Since then, she says that parents have been asking to review the program “in order to understand the content, not to invoke censure” and she can’t understand why parents have been met with stonewalling from school officials. She also says that the school system’s actions are a violation of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), risking the loss of federal funding.
Tate told The Dagger that she doesn’t doubt that Drama Therapy may lead some students to get help. But she questions whether school personnel are qualified to execute a large group, therapeutic intervention and to properly assist students in the aftermath, especially those who don’t reach out for counseling. She also questions how parents can fully support their students without access to the content.
Tate says she has been trying since December 8th to get a video tape or a transcript. She says Principal Patricia Walling told her that the video tape was not available because it was being edited and offered a copy of the scripts instead. But a few days later, Walling said in an email that four of the scripts were written by students as class work and couldn’t be released due to “school policy” and additional copyrighted material couldn’t be released either. Walling said she would check with Cummins about a way for Tate to gain access to the copyrighted material through a paid web site. Walling’s email was friendly enough, but Tate says she never heard back about the website and that while she and other parents have been promised the edited tape at some point, they want to see it now and unedited.
Tate and several other parents then met with Executive Director of Secondary Education Dave Volrath. From Tate’s letter, it looks like Volrath dismissed concerns about the impact of Drama Therapy on students. Tate says Volrath told parents that he didn’t want a story to hit The Aegis and he reiterated that copies of the scripts couldn’t be given out because they were copyrighted. So Tate asked if parents could simply read a copy at the school, without taking it home. She said Volrath took her phone number to make arrangements to meet at school the next day, December 18th.
When Volrath didn’t call at the appointed time, Tate called Volrath’s office. She was told Volrath was out, on his way back from Havre de Grace High, and Tate expressed upset over the missed meeting. But Volrath has never called her.
When reached for comment, Volrath told The Dagger that he did not dismiss parents concerns, only that he had no evidence that students had been harmed. Regarding his statement about The Aegis, Volrath said that he told parents he did not want student work and/or copyrighted material to appear in the paper.
In her letter, Tate writes that she and other parents are “surprised and disappointed that it has come to this” and she wonders if school officials are hoping to exhaust parents’ efforts through “delay tactics.”
The Dagger contacted HCPS in early December with questions about Drama Therapy after we got a tip from a reader. On December 14th, we received the following email from Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Roger Plunkett:
At the request of Dr. Tomback, Mr. Volrath is looking into the situation and will prepare a detailed report to the Superintendent.
Is there some reason for HCPS to circle the wagons? Hopefully not, but parents shouldn’t have to work this hard to review program materials. And a consent form with an opt-out provision is nothing new. Like any HCPS parent, I’ve signed dozens, most recently for the movie Schindler’s List. Why not for DramaTherapy?
While we await more from HCPS, Tate is calling on parents to “raise their voices in support of parental rights” by attending the next Board of Education Meeting scheduled for Monday, January 11 at 8:30 p.m. in the HCPS A.A. Roberty Administration Building in Bel Air.
Here’s the full text of Rachel Tate’s letter:
Harford County parents are in danger of losing more than a foothold on parental rights in the public school system while Harford County Public Schools may be in jeopardy of having federal funding revoked if resolutions cannot be reached regarding the controversial dramatherapy intervention program which was held without parental knowledge or consent at Havre de Grace High School on Friday, December 4, 2009.
All Harford County parents must make their presence known at the next Harford County Board of Education meeting, or the school board and HCPS administration may misconstrue their absence as permission to establish a dangerous precedent enabling teachers and administrators to arbitrarily deny parental access to any and all materials used during the school day in any one of the county’s public schools.
The program in question was designed to address hard-hitting issues such as rape, incest, abortion, suicide, teenage sexuality, teenage promiscuity, bullying, underage drinking and drunk driving. The program involves therapeutic interventions prescribed and implemented by Mr. Cummins, the dramatherapy advisor and carried out with the approval of HHS principal, Mrs. Walling.
Programs such as this are stark representations as to why the Hatch Amendment of 1984/PPRA was enacted by the United States Congress. HHS and HCPS officials violated the provisions set forth in this amendment by choosing not to notify parents of this program, denying parents’ oversight and review opportunity, ignoring federal stipulations that an opt-out policy be followed and conducting intrusive psychological interventions which may have caused public embarrassment to the student and/or the students’ family.
HHS [Havre de Grace High School] and HCPS officials have seemingly closed ranks in protection of their own against parental outcry and confrontation. Parents seeking answers as to the content of this program have been quick to say they did not step up in an effort to censure free speech, nor did they wish to disparage the students who performed in the dramatherapy. Parents asked to view the video and read the script out of concern for their own students and a desire to evaluate the accuracy of the word on the street.
The vast majority of HHS parents remain unaware that the captive student audience, held at the mercy of the current administration, was coerced to undergo what could be deemed an experimental approach to dramatherapy; as it does not appear to have been constructed within the guidelines set forth by the National Association of Drama Therapists, nor does it adhere to standard clinical practices of assessing each patient’s individual needs and tailoring a treatment plan to achieve specific outcomes. One parent’s response to the notion that this was therapy was “if you aim at the broadside of the barn, you are bound to hit something.” It should also be noted that another parent who attended the Thursday evening show with his son said that he found the program helpful. Attending alongside a student certainly allows for follow up and awareness of the students’ response. Parents who remain unaware of the program or who have asked for more information are not privy to those details.
According to data from safechild.org, it is estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys will suffer sexual abuse before the age of 18. It is most likely, then, to anticipate that approximately 150-180 students potentially endured unwarranted secondary victimization while watching one of the skits which portrayed an incest survivor experiencing flashbacks triggered by memories which surfaced during a drinking game at a girls’ sleepover.
Parents must stand strong against opinions such as those expressed by Mr. Volrath, HCPS Executive Director of Secondary Schools, who in his remarks to concerned parents said, “Well, for the most part no harm was done.” Parents contend that the negative impact on students cannot begin to be quantified because no intake interviews were conducted regarding the issues posing difficulties for individuals within the student body. Neither were exit interviews or debriefing sessions conducted to provide a time and place for further exploration, analysis and proactive strategy planning to help students identify positive coping mechanisms for managing the substantive personal issues they are facing. If Volrath, who admitted he had not read the script or seen the video, is correct, then why has it been impossible for parents to gain access?
Events like this make sense of the severe penalty levied when public school officials display such willful disregard for parents’ and students’ rights. The loss of federal funding is the penalty for such egregious neglect of the provisions addressed in the Hatch Amendment of 1984. That is quite a high price to pay for negligence, willful or not.
At this time, HCPS and HHS school officials have responded to requests to view a videotape of the dramatherapy program by stating that arrangements will be made to release the information when it is returned from the editing process. Parents have requested to view the original, raw, unedited footage from the December 4 assembly and do not understand why the tape was not able to be picked up from the videographer’s home in Cecil County and made available before the editing process began. One parent, who spoke with the videographer, learned within days after the assembly that editing was not going to be started before January. The question becomes why didn’t the school system request the video, show it to parents and return it in time for editing to begin in January?
Some parents are getting the impression that the full impact of violations are not being taken seriously by top level administration officials. They fear that once everyone returns following the holiday break, officials may attempt to exhaust parents’ patience and time resources with delay tactics. As there has absolute refusal to open the full script to parents who have made such a request, it seems a bit early to bank on the promise that the video will be presented.
Parents making the requests are surprised and disappointed that it has come to this, especially as the initial inquiry by one parent was to see the tape in order to understand the content, not to invoke censure. The response by the school system of “slamming the door” in that parent’s face has piqued the interest of every parent who learns of the incident. The use of a school-wide assembly to present such controversial information without parental knowledge or consent has been met with parental responses ranging from very upset to not worry at all. However, parents are in agreement that parental rights have been violated. Parental response to that is “Now, I want to see that tape!”
Parents interested in raising their voices in support of parental rights are encouraged to make their presence known at the January 11, 2010 Board of Education meeting which will be held at the HCPS A.A. Roberty Building at 8:30 p.m. For more information on how to be involved, please contact HCPSconcernedparents@hotmail.com or call 410-652-0250.
Parents who have been trying since early December to gain access the content of Drama Therapy at Havre de Grace High School have been invited to view a DVD of the program in the school’s media center on Thursday, January 7th at 6:30 p.m. The invitation came in the form of an email late Tuesday from Principal Patricia Walling. The DVD is expected to be an original, unedited video of the presentation shown to students at a generally assembly at the school on December 4, 2009.
Drama Therapy is a series of short plays dealing with serious issues including teen suicide, incest, recovered memory and substance abuse. The program was developed in concert with school guidance counselors, and students were urged to seek counseling after seeing the plays if necessary.
Parents at the school first requested access to the content material on December 8, upon learning about the general assembly and given the nature of the program. Their requests were first made public on Monday in a Letter to The Dagger from Havre de Grace parent Rachel Tate.
This is a developing story.