Oak Bluffs School principal apologizes for PG-13 movie

Oak Bluffs School. — File photo by Lynn Christoffers

Decisions by two Oak Bluffs School teachers to screen the film “Hancock” for their students prompted the resignation of a teaching assistant in protest, and brought swift action from principal Richie Smith.

In a letter to school parents, Mr. Smith said the PG-13 rated film was inappropriate for the students, and he told parents he assumed full responsibility for the mistake.

“I want to inform you that some of our fifth-graders were shown the movie ‘Hancock’ upon completion of their MCAS testing this past Wednesday,” Mr. Smith wrote. “The movie has a PG-13 rating and has some inappropriate content and language. As the principal, I am responsible for everything that happens in this school. I offer my apologies to the children and parents affected by our actions. I ask that you please call me if you have any questions or concerns.”

The incident disclosed a lack of written guidelines in some Martha’s Vineyard public schools and of an Island-wide school policy regarding films shown in classrooms.

The issue came to light after longtime Oak Bluffs School teaching assistant Julian Wise resigned on May 10, the day after his supervisors, fifth-grade teachers Kelli Pecararo and Megan Farrell, showed the movie to 10- and 11-year-old students in a class of about 30.

Mr. Wise told The Times the students were allowed to watch the movie, which contained language and humor inappropriate for children their age, as a reward for completing Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams.

“Hancock” stars Will Smith as a superhero with powers of flight and superhuman strength who inadvertently causes millions of dollars in property damage as he fights criminals, due to his constant intoxication.

A review of “Hancock” in the June 24, 2008, issue of Variety warned that Mr. Smith’s movie character’s foul language “…treads the very edge of PG-13 permissiveness and will no doubt catch many July 4 weekend kid-herding parents unhappily unaware.”

Principal takes responsibility

“We should not have shown that movie, because of the PG-13 rating, number one, and also the inappropriate content,” Mr. Smith told The Times in a phone call Tuesday. “That was just poor judgment on our part. Ultimately, I’m responsible for anything that happens in the school, so it’s my responsibility and I’ve got to take the steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Mr. Smith said that when he learned about the movie incident, he gathered more information and then spoke with the two fifth-grade teachers about it. Although Mr. Smith was out of the school building on Monday, his letter was emailed to parents that day.

Mr. Smith said although Oak Bluffs School does not have written guidelines regarding movies, parents receive a form at the beginning of the school year asking for permission for their children to watch movies in school.

“We receive parental permission to show videos, but as far as a PG-13 guideline, that’s simple,” he said. “The bottom line guideline is that we should not be showing videos like that.”

Mr. Smith pointed out that a “PG” rating stands for parental guidance. “It doesn’t say school guidance on it,” he said. “We shouldn’t be in a situation where we’re making those decisions for parents. We have an ethical responsibility to make sure what we’re doing here at school is acceptable.”

Despite their mistake, Mr. Smith added, “The actions of the teachers involved were with the intention to do something nice for their children. They are very good and caring teachers.”

Mr. Smith said he considers the incident sufficiently addressed in his discussion with the two teachers.

“I trust this staff and what they do, and in my opinion this doesn’t warrant any disciplinary action,” Mr. Smith said. “I know they have some remorse over it and are sorry it happened, and I think this is a lesson for all of us on the staff to discuss and be reminded, so that we don’t make the same mistake again.”

School guidelines, not policy

Superintendent of schools James Weiss said all of the schools have guidelines regarding movies. However, there is currently no Island-wide policy that would require a formal process of review and approval by the All-Island School Committee.

“In many cases, the schools’ guidelines may not be written, but they are something that’s discussed,” he said. “But there are certainly guidelines and understandings of what would be appropriate.”

“And of course, videos or movies should be age-appropriate; they should have something to do with the curriculum if you show them, or if they are some kind of reward for something, they should be age-appropriate,” Mr. Weiss added.

The movie rating system already outlines those parameters, he pointed out.

“Unless you’re 13 or older you shouldn’t be seeing a PG-13 movie, and you shouldn’t be seeing an “R” or “X” rated movie in our schools,” Mr. Weiss said. “I guess that’s kind of where we are. I would think that principals would be putting some guidelines out either in writing or verbally about what’s appropriate.”

Mr. Smith took the helm as principal at Oak Bluffs School last September. He said he certainly plans to reemphasize Oak Bluffs School’s guidelines and to consider what changes might be needed to ensure that last week’s incident would not be repeated.

“Whether that takes written guidelines or not, I’m not sure,” he said. “There’s a level of trust that I need to extend to my staff, and so I’m going to do it in a manner that will foster trust and show that I trust the staff. But also it’s a matter of my own level of comfort. I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again for our children, and that’s what’s going to be first.”

As for the practice of rewarding students for MCAS participation with a movie, Mr. Weiss said that is it not unusual for many schools to host pre- and post-MCAS celebrations.

“It may not always be a movie; some schools offer breakfast, free time, and things of that nature to thank the kids for their hard work,” he said.

“Movies are not necessarily shown as a reward for taking part in MCAS but more as an acknowledgment of a job well done,” Mr. Smith agreed. “I don’t have a problem with movies being shown, necessarily, but I do have a problem with what type of movie is being shown.”

Mistake was made

Asked for comment, Mr. Wise emailed The Times. “It would be inaccurate to say that this incident alone precipitated my abrupt departure,” he wrote. “There had been a series of work-related issues in the last month that contributed to my resignation. However, I do believe that schools must be places where children are shielded from the coarser elements of our popular culture, not exposed to them.

“I do not think this was a malicious or intentional act on the part of the teachers. It was most likely a case of carelessness and distraction. There are so many wonderful things about the Oak Bluffs School and the people in it, and I wouldn’t want this single incident to distract people from the great things that happen in the building every day.

“Richard Smith is one of the finest individuals I have had the pleasure of serving under in any capacity, and I appreciate the sensitivity and understanding he has shown me. The Oak Bluffs School is very fortunate to have him as principal.

“I want the students and parents in the community to know how much I have appreciated their kindness over the years and wish everyone the best in the future.

“Mistakes are made and we’re only human. I have respect for the fifth grade teachers and do not want this one incident to overshadow the many wonderful contributions they have made to children throughout the year.”