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COURT HOUSE – One Middle Township Board of Education member questioned why "there is a problem" with the high school musical this year "when it's not the first time a play included profanity." Another questioned whether the student conduct policy, which prohibits profane language and public displays of affection, included all school activities and groups, or just some.

At the heart of the discussion was a petition presented to the board prior to its March 17 meeting calling for more oversight of school plays. Petitioners were upset by the February spring musical, which included "sexual innuendos and acts" and "offensive" language.

The originator of the petition, Barbara Kraemer of Court House, was not at the meeting, however, Richard and Sue Sterling of Court House, spoke about why the petition, with about 140 signatures, originated and what the signers sought.

The high school presented "Pippin," a story of a young prince on his search for meaning and significance in life. As of November 2015, it was the 33rd longest original run on Broadway. While based on real characters, the story is historically inaccurate.

The board heard from nearly two dozen students, alumni and parents, mostly speaking in support of the musical director, program and plays during more than an hour-long public comments portion of the meeting. Five individuals spoke out seeking more oversight, including one board member. Musical director Deborah Jenkins Dalfonso attended the meeting but did not speak.

Anticipating a number of comments, Superintendent Dr. David Salvo opened the public comment portion by reading a statement about his inquiry into the play. He indicated the Tony Award-winning play had been "modified for age appropriateness of the players and audience" and provided a "real and meaningful learning experience for students," which was part of their educational goal.

"The board has never been involved in overseeing the selection of any of the arts activities," he stressed, "ensuring the staff have independence within appropriate contours to express and learn. The play is considered a classic and has been performed by many high schools throughout New Jersey."

Salvo said he believed the costumes were also age appropriate and "sufficiently modest." He noted "We routinely have students wear costumes or outfits that wouldn't be appropriate to wear at school, but nonetheless are appropriate for what they are doing," referring to a wrestling singlet.

In terms of subject matter, "We advertised in the press release that there were adult themes," Salvo added. "I do not believe any further action nor further activity is needed. I am confident my inquiry is sufficient.

"I welcome people contacting me with their concerns," he said. "I am not aware of anyone who signed the petition reaching out to me to discuss this. I wish they had."

Most of the standing-room-only crowd applauded Salvo following his statement.

Language, Behavior 'Not Acceptable'

Kraemer, contacted prior to the meeting was on vacation. She took her 13-year-old granddaughter to the play and was "upset" when she got home because of "the amount of cursing" in the play.

"My husband spoke with a neighbor who knew about the controversy surrounding the play and said we should protest to the school board," she said. "I asked my granddaughter what she thought about the play and she commented that there was a lot of cursing.

"I understand when you buy a script you have to stick to it, but don't buy the script," Kraemer continued. "We need someone overseeing this instead of one or two teachers picking a play on their own. This is not what I am paying taxes for; the language and behavior is not acceptable."

Kraemer said there also were a "number of sexual innuendos and sexual acts that were hidden, but still very obvious to what was happening. There was a circus-like train car with open doors and you could see the silk pillows and linens. Pippin is deciding what is important in life and there are two girls trying to lure him with love and sex. Pippin goes into the train car, the doors close and he comes out all disheveled and smiling. It's obvious what has gone on."

A later scene also portrayed sexual activity according to Kraemer. "I feel our schools need to be training our children for an ethical and moral lifestyle," she stressed. "This is not it."

Is Student Policy for "All"?

The high school code of conduct posted on the school's website states that students should refrain from profanity and public displays of affection. Board member Robert Bakley II noted it also states that students should "respect ourselves and others," and "not purposely hurt, offend verbally or physically attack or belittle another person."

"Are we going to violate policy?" the board member asked colleagues. "It says it's (profanity) not allowed any time. Does this mean that the football team members will be disciplined if they use profanity while this group isn't?"

Board President Dennis Roberts and Salvo said the policy needed to be taken "within context." If a student "is reading a structured script or book that includes profanity, they are not in violation of the student code."

Bakley asked board Solicitor Amy Elco for her opinion and she agreed with Roberts and Salvo.

"It refers to activities during the school day," Elco said, "as part of the curriculum. If it is part of a structured activity, such as reading a book or a play, and the student is not choosing to say it (profanity) but read it, then it is not against policy."

"Why is this a problem this year?" asked Board member Gloria Hodges. "This is not the first time we've had a play with profanity. Why is this a problem with some of the same people who were involved in the past, and it wasn't a problem then? I have a problem with that."

Hodges, who said she worked in the high school for 21 years, did not see “Pippin” but knew that the director was able to "reach out and pull in students from all walks of life. Like our school mission says, we believe in diversity. I know from my children who were involved in the plays that they learned a lot, they worked hard and they grew from the experience."

Alumni, Students, Parents Supportive

Several alumni spoke about the opportunities Middle Township's musical program provided them for college and careers. Several high school students talked about challenges they encountered performing various types of roles that helped them grow and have different experiences.

"It's awesome that we do out-of-the-box shows," said Kaitlyn Bailey, a student from Avalon wearing a shirt promoting the musical. "It exposes students to different cultures and different experiences."

Another student who said she played a character in the play with "mature content" said it "opened up a new experience and showed us how to handle ourselves on stage with this content."

Greta Schwartz of Seaville, said she raised two children "in church and deep morals. I also raised them on plays and musicals. Pippin is a great story for teens because it is about coming of age. It touches their heart. It's life, and life is full of evil things and hardship. How do you expect them to understand their feelings if they don't feel a connection, and arts can provide that connection. Maybe some topics are considered immoral, but shows are a success for a reason. They touch the heart."

Not Everyone Supportive

While everyone seemed to applaud the students' performance and the director's ability, not everyone was supportive of the play's content.

"Art has a responsibility over content, especially with children," Sterling said prior to the meeting. "The school district has a policy on behavior and student conduct and this play was inconsistent with the student code. The students did a great job in their performance, but it was not the proper message. Where is the line?

"More care needs to take place in the selection of the plays the students are performing," he added. Sterling taught in the district for 36 years before retiring and has been a pastor for 30 years. He said he directed plays at the middle school for 21 years and "none of them had any vulgarity." 

He noted that an announcement about the play in one of the local newspapers advertised that the play featured "mature material." In addition, he said the youngest student in the play was 11-years-old.

"The plays should be family friendly," Sterling said. "It's different when you go to a theater that is supported independently. Our taxes support our schools and we should have a voice in school matters like this."

Mother Appreciative

The mother of the 11-year-old actor, Amy Anderson of Court House, expressed her son Jordan's love for the songs from Pippin along with the show's message "that life is never perfect and that what we have to do is find something and someone to care about, devote ourselves to that and do the best we can. Pippin learns that it is the process of seeking that contains the joy, not the attainment of the goal itself."

Anderson talked about numerous theatrical opportunities presented to her son as a result of the program and Dalfonso's efforts.

"As a mother witnessing what an incredibly positive impact Middle Township High School's theater program has had on my child (years before he even gets to high school) I feel a gratitude beyond what words can express. Jordan has learned through his experiences that what occurs within the script of a show is just that, part of a show, and not real life. Jordan knows that scripts will contain satire, irony, tongue-in-check references, themes and lessons. Jordan does not transfer what is being said or implied in a show to real life interactions."

Anderson also read a brief letter from her son, Jordan Severino, thanking Dalfonso for everything she taught him.

More Oversight Needed

David Bollinger and Sue Sterling, both petition signers, said they felt more oversight was needed in the schools. Both expressing their "freedom of speech," they questioned why profanity was needed and allowed in the play.

"I don't see the purpose," Sterling said. "We don't use bad words in our family. I am a Christian woman and feel you are degrading me and my family because of what we live by. Dr. Salvo made it very clear in his statement that it was the right thing, and because you advertised it had mature themes that we need to remove a group of people from seeing the play. That is not the values I have and every taxpayer does not enjoy profanity."

Another mother, from Green Creek, whose daughter was in the play, agreed that the play should be for all audiences. "I would never think to research a high school play before attending," she said. "Are there procedures or guidelines that are being met?"

Rosie Jefferson, whose freshman son was in the play, said she was "surprised" by the language and scenery but thought the play was presented in a mature manner.

"This is the age of information," said a woman who identified herself as a librarian in Court House, urging people to use the Internet for additional information. "If you are concerned, it is your right and duty to be informed." 

Director 'Laying Low'

The play was produced by Kelley Hogg and directed by Dalfonso with Marni McCann, assisting. Although Dalfonso had posted a message on her Facebook page that she had been "advised not to attend" the board meeting, she also "encouraged as many people who support me to attend the meeting" and attended the meeting herself. She thanked everyone for "18 years of cultural opportunities provided to the students."

When contacted for comments March 16 about the play, Jenkins referred questions to Salvo. Within minutes of contact, her Facebook page was no longer visible publicly and a message posted later by husband Jim Dalfonso indicated Jenkins was "laying low" and anyone wanting to contact her needed to let him know.

'Got Our Answer'

Contacted after the meeting, Richard Sterling said he "got his answer of where the line is. There is no line," he said, "anything goes within context. I think that's a very dangerous position to take. Maybe the policy needs to be changed." 

Sterling said he and the other signers of the petition were not trying to disparage Dalfonso. Instead, they were asking the board to take a look at the play content. "Just because other high schools in New Jersey are performing it, doesn't make it right.

"What is the life lesson that was learned?" he asked. "Even at the end of the play when Pippin has a victory over his demons and he should be elated, he isn't. He acted like he was a chicken who decided not to take his life and that he instead was a farmer without the glamour.

"I understand the mores' in America are changing," Sterling added. "We are the ones looked at with three heads because we don't agree."

His wife, Sue, said she wanted the school to be "sensitive to those who don't agree with you. There are people in the district who are sensitive to coarse humor and sexual innuendos. We shouldn't be put down because we have conservative Christian beliefs." 

She also noted that she thought the play should be "inclusive" rather than excluding groups. "Parents should be able to bring their younger siblings to a high school play. I don't believe removing a group because you have a mature theme is the right thing."

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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