BOARD OF EDUCATION: Public addresses recent MHS play controversy
LEDGER – The Mitchell County Board of Education at its regular meeting Tuesday, Nov. 27, received public comment about the controversial play performed at Mitchell High School Thursday, Nov. 8, honored exiting board member Gary Moore and received an update on the school system’s day treatment program from Executive Director of Exceptional Children Mark Hughes.
A resolution to vote on the approval of the new K-8 school was taken off the agenda at the beginning of the meeting.
Board Chair Angela Burleson addressed a crowded Central Office boardroom before the public comment portion of the meeting began. Visitors packed the room, leaving just a few vacant chairs around the perimeter. Some held pieces of paper with their speeches written on them and others diligently took notes and reacted to each speaker.
Area pastors and representatives from the Toe River Arts Council, which sponsored the play performed by members of the Parkway Playhouse, attended.
“All of us share a deep concern for the content of the material that is presented to our students in Mitchell County,” Burleson said. “While it is the duty of this board to set policy, we must refrain from overreaction and defer to our administrators to make the right decisions.”
Burleson pointed out Mitchell County Schools Superintendent Chad Calhoun ensured the play was stopped as soon as word reached the Central Office “The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged” contained sensitive material including two males engaging in a “stage kiss,” coarse language and references to suicide.
Burleson said Calhoun is committed to ensuring all future content performed in the county’s schools will be more strictly reviewed.
Seven people made public comments. Each speaker was given five minutes, and the board did not respond to or take action on anyone’s comments.
“We’re here to hear you,” Burleson said. “Just because we don’t respond here doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned.”
Yancey-Mitchell NAACP President Robin Ellis was the first to take the podium.
Ellis said the reaction to the play has further perpetuated a “toxic atmosphere” toward LGBTQ students in Mitchell County schools.
“After the debacle, many have been vocal about their horrible experience as members of the LGBTQ community in Mitchell County schools,” she said.
Ellis added LGBTQ students have the same anti-bullying protections other students have and cited the First Amendment and other legal protections – a male in the back of the room chuckled out loud after she finished the remark.
“Pardon me?” Ellis said as she quickly turned around and scanned the crowd before finishing her remarks.
Ellis said the NAACP would offer free diversity training to Mitchell County schools.
“Mitchell High School is not and has not been a safe place for LGBTQ students,” Ellis said in closing.
After Ellis, Doug Harrell spoke representing the Blue Ridge Christian News and was followed by Grassy Creek Baptist Church Pastor Nathan Silver, who spoke on behalf of the Mitchell County Baptist Association.
Harrell and Silver both spoke about the importance of teaching students about morals and fully supported the board’s decision to stop the play.
“I unapologetically stand on a Christian base,” Harrell said. “I have no argument with any person. Our No. 1 commandment as Christians is to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Silver said he hopes the school system’s administrators continued to monitor content performed in schools strictly and thanked the board for its work.
“We are grateful for you,” Silver said to the board. “We are praying for you as you discern what is appropriate for our students.”
Toe River Arts Board Chair Dr. Dan Barron followed Silver and read a prepared statement about the play and its content.
Barron said TRAC’s 30-year partnership with Mitchell County Schools is strong and the incident is the first of its kind.
“There’s much that can be said,” Barron said. “We feel our 30-year partnership with Mitchell County Schools speaks for itself. I want to reaffirm that Toe River Arts has a policy that no one will be discriminated against.”
John McKinney, who started a petition and collected signatures from those concerned about the content of the play, addressed the board next.
McKinney said he started the petition solely out of the concern, not hate.
“I wanted to show the board that Mitchell County citizens are concerned for the welfare of our children,” he said.
McKinney allowed the board to view the petition and asked them to ensure such a performance doesn’t happen again in a local school.
Melisa Cadell, head of the art department at Mitchell High School, addressed the board next and said she did not know the content of the play before it was performed. Cadell said she is certain Toe River Arts had no agenda when selecting and performing the play.
Cadell added the themes of the play were presented with little to no context for the students in the audience and added the arts are meant to be a form of communication, not a roadmap by which to live. She described the onstage kiss as “pretend” and “slapstick.”
Amy Waller of the Mitchell County Gay/Straight Alliance was the final speaker during the public comments segment. She expressed concern over reports some students in the audience shouted homophobic slurs at the actors during the performance and asked if the issue is being investigated.
After the public comments, Calhoun presented Moore with a commemorative plaque.
A longtime teacher and administrator in the county, Moore did not run for re-election, and the meeting was his final as a board member.
“He’s a very special person and a very young man,” Calhoun said smiling. “We appreciate your four years of service to this board. You’ve been an outstanding board member.”
Hughes said the system’s day treatment program is almost completely ready.
Hughes said the startup group should contain about five students. Some services will be offered during December, but the full classes and programs should be fully underway in January.