Students, parents, and teachers crowded into the Great Salt Bay Community School library during the school committee meeting March 9 to discuss the content and age-appropriateness of media shown in classrooms.
This discussion stemmed from an event in November. A sixth-grade social studies teacher – school officials did not name the teacher, citing personnel rules – as part of a unit on Asia, decided to show a video clip featuring Malala Yousafzai, an 18-year-old Pakistani activist for girls’ rights to attend school.
Instead of a video the teacher had previewed, the teacher accidentally showed a video from The New York Times, GSB Principal Kim Schaff said.
About a minute into the video, a scene of a woman being beaten was shown. Upon realizing the error, the teacher immediately turned off the video, Schaff said.
During the public comment portion of the March 9 meeting, sixth-grader Theo Crocetti, a student in the social studies class, read a statement to a packed room about how the video affected him.
Theo said he put his head on his desk when the violent scene started, but still heard screams and gunshots coming from the video.
“I got a lump in my throat and almost started to cry,” Theo said. “It really scared me.”
Theo said he thought about the video for the rest of the day, and as a result did poorly on a math test, had nightmares, and could not sleep.
“What I saw in school affected my day and my sleep,” Theo said.
Theo also talked about the school’s use of CNN Student News, a daily, 10-minute news program for students in junior and senior high school. The content of the show is created by CNN journalists and educators.
Theo said some segments of CNN Student News discuss the war in Syria and the Islamic State group. He does not like the segments and does not wish to see them.
“Sometimes something might be shown about compliments or ways to help you learn, and I like those,” Theo said. “I have talked to a lot of kids and they say they don’t like CNN Student News. My question is, why is it being shown if we don’t like it?”
Stacie Crocetti, Theo’s mother, voiced her concerns about the content and age-appropriateness of media being shown in the classrooms, and the detrimental impact it may have on children’s emotional, behavioral, and psychological well-being.
“This is not about the curriculum, but there must be healthier, more creative and substantive ways of teaching current events in the classroom,” Crocetti said.
“It is my belief that not all media will be appropriate in all parts of our vast and diverse country,” Crocetti said. “What might be appropriate in an urban setting with a multitude of specific community issues they face might be out of line with the construct of the quiet, rural community of Damariscotta, Maine.”
The GSB policy committee is scheduled to review the school’s controversial issues policy as well as the selection of instructional and library materials policy.
Crocetti suggested that the committee consider adding language into the policies regarding the educational goals or relevance of media and working definitions of what violent, graphic, and disturbing media are, and that the committee consider creating a stand-alone media policy.
Sharon Sandstrum, a clinical social worker of 25 years, said she has concerns about the “devastating and long-lasting effects” violent images can have on children.
“I urge the school committee to work with these parents, teachers, and other interested community members to craft age-appropriate media guidelines dealing with violent images, and I urge you to give families choice if their family values lie outside agreed-upon parameters,” Sandstrum said.
GSB Assistant Principal Ira Michaud spoke about the controversial issues policy and how it has been used in the school. Schaff and Michaud have provided feedback on videos or clips teachers have wished to use in the classroom, and at times found them not in line with the policy.
Michaud also said Schaff has reviewed the policy with the faculty and staff and shared a list of questions for the teacher to consider when thinking about showing a particular piece of media in the classroom, including the academic value the media might have.
Michaud also read a statement from John Cannon, a seventh-grade teacher at GSB and father of a student in the sixth grade.
Cannon said in his statement that his child never mentioned the incident, and when asked about it later, could not remember it happening. Cannon first became aware of the issue when he received an email from another parent about the event.
“I was concerned about the tone and the content of the email, as it implied that the showing of graphic, violent media was a regular occurrence in the upper grades at Great Salt Bay,” Cannon said in his statement. “As an upper-grade teacher, I know this to be inaccurate. I can’t think of any footage I show, or that is shown here, that would require defending due to its graphic or violent nature.”
Cannon said that if children are experiencing something that is emotionally disturbing or uncomfortable, the school should listen and respond. However, he does not think a policy to ban all violent images would be an appropriate response by the school.
“One of our most important responsibilities as educators of children is to help them become active, thinking citizens of our community, our country, and our world,” Cannon said. “They are born with a strong sense of personal justice, but what that looks like in the wider world needs to be taught, and discussed, and arrived at through thoughtful, critical discussions about right and wrong.”
Prudence Kiessling, a mother of two GSB students, spoke in favor of the way GSB handles the use of media in the class, particularly CNN Student News. Kiessling’s sixth-grade daughter enjoys the program and asks to watch it at home.
“My daughter is at the age where she wants to learn what is going on in the world around her,” Kiessling said. “I believe that the content has allowed her to gain knowledge and become an advised future citizen of the world.”
Michaud also read a statement from Natalie Dean, the school guidance counselor. Dean wrote that although the school cannot prevent students from encountering difficult things, it can teach children how to deal with what they are seeing and hearing.
“In school, students do not come across random bits of curriculum, as they will inevitably encounter random and isolated media on their own,” Dean said in her statement. “A unit of study develops context, including the resolution, which often includes growth or change, or highlights the remaining need for it to occur. Discussion happens, questions are encouraged, and support is available.”
Dean said the purposeful and thoughtful inclusion of limited, age-appropriate material that elicits a difficult response allows students to experience genuine emotions in a safe place with their peers and develops empathy.
“The hope for a peaceful society where there is not so much violence, hate, and difficult news to report is one I’m sure we all share,” Dean said. “The way to move toward that society is to allow our young people to understand the difference between the world we live in and the one they would like it to be, and to develop their own impassioned motivation to be that change they wish to see.”
The policy committee will meet at 4 p.m., Monday, March 21 in the GSB library.