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New Jersey Community Members Petition Against 'Sexual Innuendo' and 'Offensive' Language in H.S. PIPPIN

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While director/choreographer Bob Fosse's original 1972 Broadway production of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's PIPPIN leaned heavily on the sexual innuendo, as Fosse-directed musicals tend to do, director Diane Paulus' 2014 Broadway revival showed that, while the fictionalized story of a young royal trying to find his corner of the sky does contain some adult themes, it can still be considered family-friendly entertainment.

However, after attending New Jersey's Middle Township High School's production of PIPPIN in February, as reported by The Cape May County Herald, about 140 community members in attendance petitioned the board of education for more control over the content of school productions.

A major point was that the production displayed "sexual innuendos and acts" and "offensive" language that would not be permitted with other school activities. The question arose as to whether the student conduct policy, which prohibits profane language and public displays of affection, included all school activities and groups, or just some.

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.

"The board has never been involved in overseeing the selection of any of the arts activities," said Superintendent Dr. David Salvo, "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 called the costumes age appropriate and "sufficiently modest," noting, "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.

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

Board member Robert Bakley II pointed out that the school's code of conduct states profanity is not allowed any time, asking, "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."

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

Community member Greta Schwartz said she raised two children "in church with 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."

"Art has a responsibility over content, especially with children," said petition-signer Richard Sterling. "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. "The plays should be family friendly. 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."

"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."

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