OTTUMWA — Intolerance is battled daily in Ottumwa schools, said the district's chief, whether or not he denies permission for one theater production on the subject.
Ottumwa High School drama students recently found out a play, "The Laramie Project" by Moisés Kaufman, scheduled for the upcoming school year, would not be performed. The play shows the challenges faced by a town after a young man is beaten to death for being gay. Students say there's an important message about acceptance in the real-life story about Matthew Shepard and that they're excited to tell that story.
"None of us can understand why they are shying away from it," said Jordan Young, 16, a student who is secretary of the OHS drama club. "The principal [of OHS] wants to get away from bullying, and he has initiatives he really [pushes]. So to hit so hard on a show that addresses bullying, it makes no sense."
She said other students she's met with feel similarly.
"We were all confused more than anything," she said. "We didn't understand what was wrong with it. The planning started in October of last year. We have auditions in a month and a half!"
She said students believe the problem lies in the subject of the play.
According to the superintendent, that's not completely inaccurate. But it's not bullying, murder or the victim being a gay student that drove the decision to deny permission for The Laramie Project, said Davis Eidahl. It's the intensity of the adult subject matter.
"The rationale is we really want to produce and showcase family-friendly productions, where all family members can come. The productions are to showcase our students, our auditorium, the district. And it's a time we connect with the community," Eidahl said. "Indian Hills actually put 'viewer discretion advised' when they performed [this show]."
He understands students and alumni who are pushing for the show. Acceptance is an important subject matter in a district that has, in the past, been criticized for having a less than accepting atmosphere. That's something staff is working on daily, Eidahl said, and even the assessments of student attitudes about acceptance show a steady improvement.
"We know we still have work to do," he said. "We work on creating a sense of belonging for each and every student. Senseless acts of bullying for reasons of differences like those [depicted in] this documentary are a great lesson to be learned. But is it the only way we can get this point across? No. It's not about one play, one initiative or one assembly; it's about creating a sense of belonging each and every day.
"Our work to create respectful, compassionate students is a constant effort. That one play is not the backbone of our effort to create students respectful of differences, whether they are physical, lifestyle, our choices or ways of thought," Eidahl said.
The superintendent said since the announcement was made, a lot of emotions have come to the surface. He acknowledged he's received respectful letters both for and against his decision.
Kayla Rowe, a 2008 OHS graduate, wrote a letter to the Courier's editor.
"We have a responsibility as a society to face issues, such as the one presented in The Laramie Project, because without recognizing and tackling them, we are doomed to keep struggling with them without resolution," she wrote.
She said the show is about a brutal killing and the unprecedented effect it had on a town.
"Regardless of your beliefs on homosexuality, this show is, to me, a statement on how people's lives and deaths have such a profound effect on one another."
"It is a topic that is really important," Eidahl said. "Just because it's not taking place at Ottumwa High School doesn't mean it won't appear in Ottumwa. There's a time and place for this play. I'd love to see the Ottumwa Community Players produce it. I would just like to reserve Ottumwa High School productions to be an event for the entire family, which [includes] young children in the audience."
Eidahl said the decision has been made. Drama students say they haven't given up.
"We have our fingers crossed," said Jordan, who attended a meeting Monday with her fellow theater club members. "We're going to do what we can."
That includes asking their parents to read the play. If they can tell the district that as parents, they find the play acceptable, it might ease the minds of administrators. The student said the OHS drama department has heard messages from supporters in Ottumwa.
"If the administration sees it's not just the theater department that wants to do it, if they're not going to listen to the theater department, maybe they'll listen to the other [community] people ready to ... go to bat for us with the school board," Jordan suggested.
"Just because we're choosing not to have one play doesn't mean we're not going to continue having the conversation of acceptance, of respect, responsibility and compassion," said Eidahl. "We'll never let up on our effort to make sure every student feels comfortable and safe coming to school. It's important that our community know the amount of energy and attention placed on creating that sense of belonging. I have no tolerance for any kind of bullying or harassment. "
Efforts to reach school board members and the high school drama teacher were unsuccessful as of press time Tuesday.