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Sherwood administrators apologize for role in play controversy

Middle school students performed to a packed house at the Portland Center for Performing Arts Sunday
by: Shanda Tice, Sherwood Middle School drama students hug after performing the play "Higher Ground" Sunday at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts.

Two key Sherwood Schools administrators have apologized for their role in a censorship saga that garnered national attention.

Sherwood Middle School Principal Anna Pittioni and Sherwood School District Superintendent Dan Jamison told community members they were sorry for the way things were handled at the middle school last month, after Pittioni cancelled a student production of a play she believed was too mature for her students.

'Cast members and their families were shocked and angry about the timing of the decision,' Pittioni said at the March 5 Sherwood School Board meeting.

Pittioni postponed the play - written by Jennie Brown, a sixth-grade teacher at SMS and the school's drama coordinator - just three days before its opening and said the script's treatment of bullying, racism, homophobia, physical intimidation and verbal harassment was inappropriate for middle school aged students.

An uproar ensued as people both for and against Pittioni's decision weighed in on the issue, and the New York City-based National Coalition Against Censorship sent letters to Pittioni and Superintendent Dan Jamison asking them to reconsider.

Given the choice to censor the play and still perform at the middle school or to not censor and go elsewhere, the Sherwood Middle School drama students rallied behind Brown's script and voted to keep the play in its original form.

When the community learned what had happened, a call went out to theater people throughout the region and offers for alternative venues poured in.

The Sherwood students performed this weekend to a packed crowd at Portland Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Portland.

At the March 5 School Board meeting, Jamison and Pittioni apologized for the way the situation was handled, and nearly a dozen members of the audience spoke for and against the cancellation of the play.

'As adults, we need to acknowledge that the events of the last two weeks have not served our kids well,' Jamison said. "There are also several breakdowns in (the) process that we must correct in the future. Our principal, Anna Pittioni, has openly acknowledged she should have reviewed the script prior to students auditioning for the play.'

Jamison noted that topics in the play 'are not taboo.'

He added, 'We should all recognize these topics deserve to be addressed in a thorough manner that reflects teamwork, planning and excellent communication by all staff before they are addressed with students. It is this larger team approach, coupled with strong parental involvement and support, that guarantees a successful learning experience for all students.'

Jamison said that he is 'personally committed to guaranteeing this improvement in our performance.'

Pittioni said there was a communication breakdown at the school level.

'Our staff did not follow the review process that is established in both board policy and our student handbook,' Pittioni said.

She added that she is working with colleagues to improve the checks and balances currently in place.

'The goal of the play is well-meaning,' Pittioni said. 'However, eliminating bullying, harassment and violence at any school takes a multi-pronged approach' that includes a team of teachers, parents, counselors and administrators, a proven curriculum, a well-established safety net to address students' emotional responses and ongoing opportunities to check in with students.

During the public comment period, Lance Dowdle said that his issue was with disrespect and disregarding school rules.

'A teacher broke the rules like a child and chose to act like a child and blame others. This could have been a great teaching experience,' Dowdle said.

Missy Wetzker, a parent who removed her daughter from the play, said she wanted her child out 'because (the play) was hurtful, and she didn't see any reconciliation at the end.'

Wetzker commended Pittioni for standing up for what was right instead of doing nothing and allowing the play to be presented.

Wanda Schroeder said that her daughter is in the play, and she wanted it to go on.

'It can be fixed how we react in Sherwood,' she said.

Sarah Grant said that her son was in the play, and she also supported Brown.

'We should not let school administrators made decisions based on a few comments,' she said.

Katherine Rowe felt that 'there is a lack of acceptance and acknowledgement of diverse families in our community,' and she urged the board to accept a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination against gays and transgendered students.

Ria Torricelli told the board, 'Thank goodness the kids were able to stand up for their rights.'

She added that she supported Brown, in part because more than 100 students auditioned for the play, and Brown added parts so more students could participate.

'She's dedicated, she's inspirational, she understands them,' Torricelli said. 'There is no malice on Jennie Brown's part. She wanted to write a play that would make a difference... She was trying to do something good for the community.'

A synopsis on the play, which was performed Sunday, March 9 in Portland, as well as comments from students and community members, will appear in the April issue of the Sherwood Gazette.