At an unusual and perhaps unprecedented meeting called by the Harford Delegation to discuss a controversial high school program known as “Drama Therapy”, Harford Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback acknowledged for the first time that mistakes had been made with the Drama Therapy program presented at a Havre de Grace High School assembly on December 4, 2009.
Dr. Tomback later told The Dagger that Drama Therapy was still under an internal investigation, involving what he called a “personnel matter that is being addressed” Tomback wouldn’t comment further, citing the negotiated agreement with school employees.
Drama Therapy is a drama production, formerly promoted by Harford County Schools and jointly developed by teachers and counselors at the Havre de Grace High, to help teens deal with serious issues. Drama Therapy has been presented in each of the past four years, but much of the content is written by students or alumni, and changes from year to year. The 2009 production, involving teen suicide, incest, abortion and recovered memory of sexual abuse, raised concerns among some area parents who questioned the therapeutic value and appropriateness of the material and said parents should have been asked for their consent prior to the mandatory school assembly.
While school personnel urged students to seek counseling to deal with issues addressed during the performance, legislators at the meeting raised questions about negative reactions from some students. Senator Nancy Jacobs asked Dr. Tomback about a student who became upset at a suicide portrayed by a student-actress on stage. To calm the student, Jacobs said the drama teacher later had to show the student that the actress was not actually dead.
Both Dr. Tomback and Executive Director of Secondary Education David Volrath, who was also in attendance, said they were not aware of the incident. A request for comments from Havre de Grace Drama teacher Mark Cummins and Principal Patricia Walling was not immediately returned.
Delegate Susan McComas later asked about other students who may have been harmed, asking Tomback “What are you going to do about that?”
Tomback didn’t respond immediately but later said that a plan was being developed for Drama Therapy which he predicted would have an opt-in, as opposed to an opt-out, provision for parents, and he said that material should be approved in advance. He acknowledged differing opinions in the Havre de Grace school community about Drama Therapy, saying the program may have had some positive and negative aspects, but “You can’t un-ring the bell.” adding, “The battle has been fought, let’s move to the peace table.”
Maryland Public Information Act Request
Dr. Tomback was calling for peace in the school community, but he had another battle on his hands with legislators who wanted to see the content of Drama Therapy and had questions about the delivery of the program.
Acting in response to a constituent, Delegate Rick Impallaria had written a letter to Tomback on January 12, 2010, asking for a DVD of the live performance shown to students in early December. Tomback wrote a letter back on January 22, telling Impallaria that the “proper procedure” in accordance with the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) was for Impallaria to provide a written request under the Act and after making the request, to either come to the schools’ headquarters in Bel Air to view the DVD, or pay a fee to obtain a copy.
Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for HCPS, explained Tomback’s actions this way:
“Del. Impallaria requested a physical copy of the DVD in order to view the performance. However, to release the physical DVD to an outside party, a formal MPIA written request is required for the protection of the students involved. At this time, we are working directly with Del. Impallaria to fulfill his request to view the DVD at his earliest convenience.”
Although all signs seem to point to the request being granted, it’s worth noting that MPIA requests can be denied under certain circumstances.
Impallaria said he was “appalled” by the move, which also prompted a request from the rest of the Harford Delegation to see the DVD. A meeting for that purpose was held on Thursday, February 4 in a conference room at the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis. In addition to several Havre de Grace parents, in attendance were Delegate Impallaria, Delegation Chair J.B. Jennings, Delegate B. Daniel Riley, Delegate Wayne Norman, Delegate Susan McComas, Delegate Donna Stifler and State Senator Nancy Jacobs. Delegate Mary-Dulany James made a brief appearance to say that she wanted to attend, but had another commitment.
In the end, the screening didn’t happen because of audio problems with the one DVD provided by Mr. Volrath of HCPS. Legislators had wanted individual copies, which Volrath said would be made if they would promise that the video wouldn’t end up on the internet. Volrath said his concerns were for the sake of the students involved.
Even without screening the DVD, Dr. Tomback spent over an hour in the hot seat as legislators expressed annoyance and disbelief over the MPIA issue, saying they would seek an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General as to when the formality of an MPIA request was required.
But legislators also expressed a desire for a better relationship, at times explaining their governmental role and even offering some advice to the new superintendent, who has had some miscommunications with parents and employees in his first year on the job.
Throughout, Dr. Tomback maintained the formal communication style that is becoming his trademark, if not a liability in this case. He said he intended no disrespect and wanted to work collaboratively: “I will work with the Delegation to comply with expectations to the greatest extent that I can.” But he stood by his position, saying he had consulted with legal counsel and that the MPIA filing request was ‘standard practice”.
Several legislators noted that written MPIA requests, which can take up to thirty days for a response, hadn’t been required in the past. Under questioning from Delegate Stifler, who said legislators were prompted by parents who wanted answers, Tomback said he was following “protocol”. When Delegate Norman, who is also a practicing attorney, called MPIA “overkill”, Tomback didn’t budge, saying that in the future, “I will respond promptly under whatever rules apply, case by case.”
Tomback later said “If there are hard feelings or misunderstandings, I’m sorry for that. If you’re dissatisfied with my response, tell me.” And tell him, they did.
State Senator Nancy Jacobs said she’d had open communications with the previous superintendent that she hoped would continue with Tomback. Jacobs, who was first elected as a delegate in 1994, told Tomback “I’ve never seen it like this, never. It’s like we’re being treated like we’re your enemy.” Later adding, “There’s supposed to be a level of trust. You’re not doing yourself any favors.” and after citing state law said, “If we want to see curriculum, by law, we’re allowed to see it.”
Delegate Riley also called for open communication, saying “Openness is important for our success; it seems to have closed with this incident. I don’t want to see it continue.” He called the MPIA request a “stalling tactic” and asked Tomback to “have faith in us without putting up little road blocks.” Riley said that when he was a Harford County teacher, he had to get permission before presenting new material and he asked if such permission had been granted and if proper procedures had been followed for Drama Therapy. He said “The program might be good, but the ultimate judge is the parents.”
Delegation Chairman J.B. Jennings explained the role of legislators, saying that constituent service was part of the job and that people came to legislators looking for help when they hit resistance elsewhere: “I want you to succeed, but please understand the job we have.” Jennings reminded Tomback that that there were 188 representatives in Annapolis all vying for limited resources: “Of all the representatives here [in Annapolis], only eleven are fighting for you and your budget. Please respect us and we’ll respect you.”
Delegate Impallaria battled with Dr. Tomback throughout, saying he was insulted by Tomback’s actions and raising questions about the content of Drama Therapy. Impallaria said he was reserving judgment until he saw the video, but having heard about content involving abortion, Impallaria said, “I don’t want my child indoctrinated” adding that he also wanted to know how Drama Therapy got this far. That’s what elicited something of an apology from Tomback, who first reiterated that changes were being made for the future of Drama Therapy, and then said that he couldn’t talk about employees, and finally adding, “There were mistakes made.”
Here is the letter from Dr. Tomback to Delegate Impallaria that prompted the meeting: