Harford County public school administrators acknowledged late last week that they did not preview the content of a program called Drama Therapy before it was shown to the public and to all students in a general assembly at Havre de Grace High School in early December, 2009. After a review of Drama Therapy prompted by questions from parents, administrators said the program, which had previously been endorsed by Harford County Public Schools, would undergo a number of changes.
Drama Therapy is a series of short plays, some of which are written by Havre de Grace students or alumni. The plays change from year to year and deal with serious issues including teen suicide, incest, sexual activity, recovered memory and substance abuse. The program itself was jointly developed four years ago by two Havre de Grace teachers and the school’s guidance counselors. Students who see the plays are urged to seek counseling if necessary.
Several Havre de Grace parents who recently sought access to the content of Drama Therapy, gathered at the school on January 7, 2010 to watch a DVD of the program. Parents said the school system used “delay tactics” to thwart their efforts to view the content. School officials say they were working to get a DVD of the production all along, citing logistical and legal barriers.
David A. Volrath, executive director of secondary education for HCPS conducted the DVD screening, along with Patricia Walling, principal of the school. Volrath said he first reviewed the content of Drama Therapy over the holidays, after it had been shown to students. Ms. Walling also said that she had not previewed the material, but she attended a public performance of Drama Therapy held the day before the general assembly for students. Asked if she thought the content was inappropriate at the time, Walling said no, but “I’ve learned from this experience.”
Before playing the DVD, Volrath told the 15-20 people gathered in the school’s media center that he was planning to recommend several “action steps” to Superintendent Robert Tomback regarding Drama Therapy. Volrath’s recommendations, which he said were subject to revision, involve the formation of a committee to review the content, to ensure that the content is accurately and tastefully portrayed, and to determine whether Drama Therapy belongs in the school day. He said members of the Havre de Grace community would be key members of the committee. Changes to the delivery of the program would include the development of pre-viewing and post-viewing instruction; “leveling” or limiting access to students by grade level; providing advance notification for parents; and an opt-out provision with alternatives for students.
All this, planned before parents even saw the DVD? Clearly, administrators found something in their own review of a program formerly lauded by HCPS, to prompt an about-face. Even the name will be abandoned.
The students involved in Drama Therapy did what they were asked to do and understandably defend their work. The issue is whether administrators should have previewed the content, made judgments about the educational/therapeutic value and made appropriate plans before showing it to students aged 14-18 years, including some with special needs, during the school day. And whether parents should have been notified and/or been asked for their consent.
I attended the screening of Drama Therapy and offer the following highlights with a few caveats. These highlights represent a fraction of the nearly 2 hour program and they are not intended as a review of the students or their work. As theater, Drama Therapy combined compelling stories with outstanding performances. Plenty of the content was relevant to the life of teenagers without being controversial. Some moments were so funny, many of us laughed out loud. Other moments prompted tears.
After watching the DVD, Havre de Grace parent Chad Tate (also husband of Letter to The Dagger writer Rachel Tate) decried what he said was a lack of leadership; Volrath replied that he would take responsibility. But others have expressed support for the program as is.
Judge for yourself:
A teenaged girl is angry with her younger, special needs sister. The younger girl is alternately called “brain dead”, “dumber than dirt” and “crazy”. We learn that the older girl’s boyfriend raped the 15 year old sister (“He didn’t mean to, he was drunk”). The older girl tells her sister no one will believe her because she’s “crazy” and “You ought to be locked away somewhere. I’m not paying for a damn abortion, I’ll give you one myself” adding that their parents should have sent the special needs girl away when she was born. In the end, the younger girl recounts what the boyfriend said as he raped her (“You shut your mouth little girl… I’ll kill you.”) The older sister and a friend leave the stage. The younger sister recounts what the older sister has said (“I’ll give you an abortion, stupid girl”.). She goes to a drawer, takes out a gun, kneels at center stage and puts the gun to her temple. Lights out. Gunshot rings out in the dark.
A group of girls just graduated from high school, are playing a drinking game. During the game, one girl says she thinks she has had sex. She’s not sure, she has memories she can’t explain. “He was on top of me…’trust’ that’s what he told me before he touched me.” We learn it was the girl’s uncle. A friend, who has been getting drunk as the game progresses wants to “call the god damn police” The first girl continues to narrate her own abuse, “ …he told me he would make me a good girl. I wanted to be good…it hurt.” The girl’s friends urge her to talk to a counselor or get her parents involved. They tell her it “doesn’t change who you are” and that she is safe with them.
A boy and girl, in high school and dating each other, are speaking directly to the audience about their relationship. They are in conflict because she wants to have sex and he doesn’t. She interprets this as rejection, worries about how it looks to others and asserts “I’m wasting my time if it’s not going to the next level.” He thinks she’s special and wants to wait to have sex. She calls him to break up. He decides he hasn’t been making her feel “appreciated”, concluding “I’ve been so stupid”. He calls her, telling the audience, “I’m gonna make this night amazing.”
School Board Member Don Osman, who attended the screening, said afterwards that some teachers told him they had walked out during the general assembly. Obviously saddened by what he had just seen, Osman said “This could have been avoided, should have been avoided.”