Once each year, the world turns its eyes to Williamsport and South Williamsport PA, as young athletes from around the globe compete in the Little League World Series. This year has garnered particular attention for the wunderkind pitcher Mo’ne Davis, whose story has united people across any manner of gender or racial lines, through the talent and grace of a single young woman. Less publicly and widely known, however, was that over this summer, the administration of the South Williamsport Area School District and the town’s Junior/Senior High School had been working against the very spirit of inclusion and diversity that is in abundant evidence on the town’s ball fields. (My previous reports were posted on July 2 and July 15.)
It was first reported by the local television station WNEP on July 1 that the school principal had canceled plans for a production of the musical Spamalot, slated for the 2014-15 school year. The reason cited, according to drama director Dawn Burch, was the musical’s gay content, which includes a same sex wedding. While a particularly incendiary statement in that initial report, about homosexuality not existing in the community, was attributed to principal Jesse Smith, it was declared inaccurate by all parties, and excised as of July 3.
The Sun Gazette of Williamsport, on July 3, reported that Dr. Mark Stamm, the district superintendent, denied Smith ever made the excised statement, though Stamm never spoke directly to the broader issue of the show being canceled over gay content. He also declared that the production had not been approved according to district policy.
Because Burch, acting on advice of counsel, would not release her communications with Stamm and Smith to corroborate her account, I became one of at least two parties to seek access to the school’s internal communications about the show under the State of Pennsylvania’s Right To Know Law. I received the materials in question yesterday, August 20; the metered postmark was August 18.
In brief, the materials make clear that Burch was telling the truth about Smith’s statements, namely that “homosexual themes” were the reason the show was being rejected, and that despite Stamm’s assertions as the story went public, it would seem Burch had very likely gone through the proper channels in seeking approval for the show or at the very least honestly and openly believed that approval had been given.
Cause of Cancelation
Regarding the assertion that Principal Smith had cited gay content as a cause for canceling the show, I quote first from an e-mail Smith sent to Burch on June 27, 2014 at 10:58 am. The first three paragraphs are redacted and only the following can be read:
“Finally, you told me late in the school year that you were looking to perform Spamalot for your spring 2015 musical. I have some concerns such as a guy sending another guy a message on girl’s underwear and a gay wedding to be performed. If you are still planning to perform this then we will need to talk.”
A cover letter to the materials provided to me by the school’s Open Records Officer – Dr. Stamm – states that six e-mails between Stamm, Smith and/or Burch on the dates June 27 through June 30 were withheld because they contained some combination of a) performance evaluation, b) written criticism of an employee and/or c) identifies child then aged 17 years or less.
Whatever was said in those e-mails aside, Smith sent an e-mail to Burch on June 30, 2014 at 7:27 am asking her to choose a different musical. He questioned the appropriateness of Spamalot as follows:
“I am not comfortable with Spamalot and its homosexual themes for two main reasons:
1. Drama productions are supposed to be community events. They are supposed to be performances that families can attend. To me, this kind of material makes it very hard for this to take place. I don’t want families to be afraid of bringing small kids because of the content. I don’t want members of the community staying home because they feel the material is too risqué or controversial.
2. I think that choosing productions with this type of material or productions that may be deemed controversial put students in a tough spot. I don’t want students to have to choose between their own personal beliefs and whether or not to take part in a production.”
So Mr. Smith feels that love is controversial, that homosexuality is risqué. He feels that people might be afraid of exposing children to it. To that I say: Mr. Smith, your statements condone the homophobic members of your community and seek to consign every gay resident to second-class status. Yet their love is not something to be feared or hidden any more than any romantic relationship of yours or Dr. Stamm’s or my own. You are coddling those who would seek to suppress and condemn, instead of setting an example of respect, equality and inclusion.
Yes, by statute Pennsylvania is inconsistent in its position on LGBT issues, in that marriage is legal for all, regardless of the genders of the couple, however the state doesn’t yet afford equal rights protection regardless of sexual orientation. But Smith is teaching lessons seemingly drawn from outdated textbooks. The law will catch up soon enough with society, either on the state or federal level, insuring equal rights for all. Stamm’s position that Smith’s decision regarding Spamalot “is sound” (e-mail from Stamm to Burch, June 30, 2014 at 1:12 PM) can be taken to mean that he condones the same discriminatory attitudes that would erase gay life, in any context, from the school’s stage. As an aside: the Motion Picture Association of America’s Ratings Board may share the school administration’s general view on representing homosexuality, according to critic Stephen Whitty of The Star-Ledger.
Approval of Spamalot
The earliest materials provided to me by the school district are dated June 27. As quoted above, Smith acknowledges that he had a conversation during the school year with Burch about her intention to produce Spamalot, and expresses specific reservations. However, there is no correspondence indicating prior approval, leaving conflicting accounts by Burch and Stamm in the press.
This leads to the very last item in the materials I received: a check dated May 12, 2014 to Theatrical Rights Worldwide, the licensing house, for $1,935, with the note “For Spring Musical – Drama.” It is signed by Jesse Smith. In an statement to me as I began exploring this situation, a representative of Theatrical Rights confirmed to me that an executed license was in place between the company and the school for Spamalot. The school also provided a copy of the Spamalot contract, signed by Burch, dated May 7, along with the check request (which did not specify the show title, only “Spring Musical License/rental/materials).” So how did a check get signed by Smith and sent to the company for a show that ostensibly wasn’t approved? Would Burch submit a check request for a musical that hadn’t been approved for Smith’s signature?
Any school administrator who has any experience in licensing theatrical material is certainly aware that payment is made in advance, not following a production. A Facebook events post shows that the school’s 2014 musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, was produced in March of this year. So it is exceedingly unlikely the check could have been construed to be payment for that production two months in arrears. The school provided me with check requests and check duplicates for perusal copies of other shows that Burch looked at, perhaps to suggest that there was confusion, but there’s only one contract, and the only check other than the one that corresponded to the Spamalot contract that over $100 was the license fee for this fall’s play production.
I can draw only two possible conclusions. The first is that Burch had secured the proper approval, albeit verbal, for the production of Spamalot, and Smith’s concerns only arose roughly six weeks after he signed a check for the rights. In that case, he was backtracking on his prior approval and Stamm’s comments reported on July 3 were either misinformed or willfully meant to obscure the events. It would be very interesting to know what prompted Smith’s change of heart, if that is the case. When did Smith discover content he objected to, and how?
The second possibility is that Smith signed a nearly $2,000 check to license a show he hadn’t approved. In my training and experience, anyone with financial responsibility is expected to know what they’re paying for. A common practice is for a check request, along with either an invoice or a contract (or both) is attached as backup to a check ready for signature. I cannot speak for the business practices of the South Williamsport School District, but if this is the truer of my two scenarios, then it appears Smith didn’t follow a fairly standard fiduciary protocol and review the license he was paying for, and now wants to distract from that oversight by blaming Burch, who appears to have been operating openly and in good faith.
With Jesse Smith’s statements about suppressing the representation of homosexuality at the school now public, perhaps he will speak about the entire situation; he has not done so publicly to date. Both Smith and Stamm should repudiate their positions – and acknowledge the truth of Burch’s original assertions – or they must deal with being known as educators who appear to deny the truthful, honest lives and loves of many of their students past, present and future, as well as the LGBT community locally, statewide and even nationally.
From my perspective, I don’t understand why, once they knew they had to reveal their positions as a result of the Right-to-Know requests, Stamm and Smith didn’t own up to what had taken place and get out ahead of the story with an apology. Instead, they have left it up to me and others to reveal the truth, which will no doubt be picked up and explored by yet more who care deeply about equality in our society. They would do well to immediately consult with local LGBT groups about establishing a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school in the next few months, to demonstrate their commitment to the open acceptance of all of their students. They should also make clear that Burch may produce plays, musicals or both that include “homosexual themes.”
And where does this leave Dawn Burch, a drama director who couldn’t quietly accept the administration’s exclusionary position and spoke out? Well as this news was first breaking, on July 3, 2014 at 8:39 am, Dr. Stamm wrote to her that, “The feedback we received from the community, both local and national, is being given appropriate consideration. Whether or not you are able to return as the drama director, is a decision that you will have to make.” It is important to note that Burch is a contract employee, not a teacher; she has no tenure. I hope the school system stands by letting her decide her future and that she stays on to run the theatre program, for the benefit of all the students, not just those whose lives find favor with those in power. And no matter what shows she puts on – in correspondence disclosed, she did express a willingness to consider other shows for the coming year, but not without the source and the reason for the change in selection being known – I look forward to visiting South Williamsport to applaud her.
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I e-mailed Dr. Stamm and Mr. Smith last evening at 6:43 pm, asking if they would speak with me on the record about the situation, setting a 9 am deadline. As of 9 am this morning, neither had responded. When I reached Burch by phone last evening, she declined to comment further on the situation. Should any of the parties contact me for an on-the-record conversation subsequent to the publication of this post, I will add to it here or write additional posts as warranted.