From left, Jaymara Captain faces the crowd at Monday's school board meeting as Hillsboro Board of Education members Tom Milbery, Beverly Rhoads and Bill Myers look on. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
From left, Jaymara Captain faces the crowd at Monday's school board meeting as Hillsboro Board of Education members Tom Milbery, Beverly Rhoads and Bill Myers look on. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Members of the Hillsboro City Schools Board of Education heard from seven individuals who spoke out against the alleged “bigotry” and “perception of homophobia” from the district following the cancellation of the fall play during the Monday, Nov. 15 meeting.

The cancellation of the play “She Kills Monsters” has led to nationwide attention, including from the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund and National Coalition Against Censorship, representatives of which last week wrote to the district to say they were “deeply troubled” by the decision.

The drama department had planned to stage the “Young Adventurers Version” of the show, which according to the NCAC “is a gentler version” of the original show “prepared by the author for children above age 11.” The show includes “implications that one character is gay,” according to the NCAC, leading to the backlash heard at Monday night’s meeting. Many of those in attendance protested the reasoning behind the decision more so than the decision itself, as they said it gave the impression of a lack of acceptance of LGBTQ+ students and individuals.

Comments were aimed at both administrators and the board. Superintendent Tim Davis confirmed to The Highland County Press that the decision to cancel the play “was made by the administration and did not have any input from the board.”

There was a standing-room-only crowd of over 30 people, with individuals standing or sitting on the floor or congregating in the hallway in addition to filling each seat in the room in the Hillsboro school board’s conference room.

Approximately 15 minutes before the meeting began, and again at the start of the meeting, Hillsboro school board president Bill Myers told those in attendance that the public participation portion of the meeting was limited to 30 minutes. He said the board would hear from the eight people who had requested to speak in the order in which they had filled out forms.

“We will do our best,” he said. “If you keep your comments succinct and we can get on to the next person, then hopefully we can hear from all eight people.”

Jaymara Captain spoke first on behalf of the organization Hillsboro Against Racism & Discrimination (HARD). She said that she, her husband and oldest son are all graduates of Hillsboro High School, while she has two children currently enrolled in the district.

“As you can see, I’m a Black woman,” Captain said. “My family and I have unfortunately faced much adversity when it comes to Hillsboro City Schools, whether it be in the classroom, on the court or this year on the golf course. I have stood here many times to express the oppression of Black students, as well as sat in several conference rooms with various administrations in hopes that they would right a wrong that they caused.

“It’s heartbreaking when any marginalized individuals, especially students, have to experience what I consider hate.”

Captain added that she attended Monday’s meeting to “show my support and stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, and especially our students.”

Captain read the district’s vision statement (“The Hillsboro City School District is the best, most innovative educational experience where all students achieve excellence in a friendly and cooperative culture”) and mission statement (“We provide a well-rounded experience that prepares each student to be successful in life”). She followed that by sharing definitions of “words I feel are of importance,” including “acceptance;” “inclusion;” “discrimination;” and “bullying.”

“Whatever your intent was, the impact of your decision to cancel ‘She Kills Monsters’ was detrimental to our LGBTQ+ students, especially since they had no involvement in the decision,” Captain said. “They were also willing to cooperate fully in making some changes, but apparently you all couldn’t get over the fact of an implied gay character in the play.

“Representation matters. What our young people see around them, positively or negatively, shapes their expectations for themselves and for each other. When it comes to our classrooms and schools, it’s imperative that we all do our part to make sure they can see themselves and all of their peers as strong, creative, capable and connected.”

Captain pointed out the board is largely “white, straight and majority male,” adding she meant “no disrespect” by that comment.

“Those in your position do have the option to not place hardship on any marginalized students, but instead of providing a well-rounded experience that prepares each student to be successful in life, you’re creating obstacles and adversity for those not living up to your straight, white, Christian profile,” Captain said. “You all have the privilege to not experience racism, sexism, homophobia and so on.

“We’re expecting you to mitigate the damage you’ve caused immediately.”

To do, she suggested the board meet to “discuss a public apology; renting out the auditorium; and discussing criteria for future plays.”

“Hillsboro has more than just straight, white Christian folks,” Captain said. “It’s time to act like it. If you don’t agree with something in the play, don’t go. As in everything else, just because you think you run everything doesn’t mean you can belittle, demean, discriminate, disrespect and dismantle what you don’t agree with.”

Next, Patrick Shanahan, a 2014 HHS graduate, spoke about “the impact” of the administration’s decision to cancel the play “regardless of intent.”

“We can go back and forth all day arguing about whether or not homophobia played a role,” Shanahan said. “The reality is it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant, because it’s not about the intent — it’s about the impact.

“Regardless of what the intent of this decision was, the impact is that it has created a perception of homophobia. It’s created a perception amongst your LGBTQ students that the school does not value them, and that’s what the administration needs to take responsibility for.”

Shanahan said he “would like to believe” the administration “has the best interests of your students in mind.” However, he said that there is “a deeper issue at play” that he believed was also present when he was in school.

“It’s always seemed like school administrators at Hillsboro were dead set on addressing every conflict in the most punitive way possible,” he said. “It always seemed like administrators had tunnel vision, and they saw liability as the only factor that mattered instead of viewing it as one factor among many.

“The reality is as a high school student, the last thing I needed was to be sheltered from the ugliness of the world, because by the time I got to high school, I was already well aware of it. It was too late to shelter me at that point. What I really needed at that age was I needed teachers’ and administrators’ mentorship. I needed guidance. I needed help figuring out how to think critically about the complexities of the world and how to navigate them in a practical, smart way.”

Shanahan added that his “experience at this school held me back because administrators — right, wrong or indifferent — tried too hard to shelter.”

“I just want to see the school take responsibility for the perception that they’ve created, regardless of what your intent was,” Shanahan said. “I would really like to see you all address the deeper-rooted issue that’s at play here, which is reevaluating the way you handle conflicts and trying to take a more complete view of these situations so you can give your students a better experience and actually prepare them for the real world.”

Andrew Sexton, the father of one of the would-be cast members of the play, drew comparisons to the Lincoln School marches in the 1950s and the “two-year legal battle to integrate African Americans into the schools that received national attention” for the district’s “bigotry.”

“Canceling the school play has once again cast this community into the national light,” Sexton said. “Once again, this attention is highlighting the historic bigotry of the board.”

Sexton, who said he is an adjunct professor, told the board that he calls school “the marketplace of ideas.”

“Whether you agree with a person’s point of view or not, when you have your own worries challenged by opinions of others, it’s an opportunity for growth, for change or at the very least understanding,” he said. “This board should support that concept. However, as in the 1950s, you’ve shown this community and students that bigotry is alive and well here.

“As adult role models for students, you are failing, at least at this point. Now is your opportunity. Show the community, its students and the nation that’s watching that the old cliche ‘history repeats itself’ is not true here. Don’t continue the legacy of your forefathers.”

Sexton concluded by asking the board to “do better than your past” and to “change course and let the play go on.”

Sexton’s daughter, Savannah, was next to speak, as she said she was addressing the board as a representative of the HHS sophomore class, for which she serves as president, and on behalf of the play’s cast and crew. She spoke about the importance of setting reasonable guidelines for the theater department to avoid future cancellations.

“I was an actor in the play ‘She Kills Monsters’ before it was abruptly canceled,” Savannah Sexton said. “I want to be able to work with the board in putting in place a new set of rules and regulations that is fair for the directors and the actors to go by, so that future plays and musicals get the chance to not only entertain the community, but also as an opportunity for students to express their creativity and in this case encompass difficult things that members of the LGBTQ+ community go through every day in and outside of school.”

Savannah said that the HHS theatre department should be “a chance for young artists to come together and create a performance” but disagreed that the administration should limit those performances to “rated G” material.

“It’s unrealistic and biased,” she said. “For example, the first performance that was put on in the auditorium — the musical showcase last spring — featured classics such as ‘Annie Jr.,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Mean Girls,’ one of which is rated PG-13.

“Imagine if a student from Hillsboro High School wanted to attend a college and had only experienced performing G-rated shows. They would be uneducated and behind in the theater program. As high school students, we should be able to be doing high school performances.”

Savannah said that she was afraid “this will happen again” to future performances and hoped to “address this in a fair and responsible way.”

“My hope is that as a group, you will start to prioritize the arts, not only because we provide you with entertainment, but because you genuinely care about your students and the diversity of the school as much as myself and many others do, and work with us to ensure that this does not happen again in the future,” she said.

The next speaker, Christopher Cronan, yielded his time to Duncan Pickering-Polstra, an HHS senior and another would-be cast member of the show.

Pickering-Polstra said the “administration was hallmarked by a consistent failure in respecting and caring for the arts and the students involved in them,” referring to an April 2019 meeting in which the board voted to suspend a longtime music teacher without pay and began the contract termination process.

“Now, you have done it again,” Pickering-Polstra said. “Again, you trod upon our effort and resolve to do what we love. Again, you trample upon our love, our passions, our hope and even who we are as people.”

Pickering-Polstra read a list of students and told the board, “These are the names of people you let down.” He then promised, “We will get our show.”

“It’s not too late,” Pickering-Polstra said. “You can still show that you have the capacity to do good by us. Apologize, please. Give us our opportunity. Put aside your pride and start doing what you should be doing. Care about your students.”

The next speaker, the Reverend Terry Williams of Orchard Hill United Church of Christ in Chillicothe, told the board that he attended the meeting at the request of members of his congregation connected to the district who “were concerned about issues of freedom of speech and religious freedom.”

He said that allowing religion to influence, or “even appear to influence,” the administration’s decisions, has led many to feel “the board is participating in religious censorship.”

“That deeply concerns me,” Williams said. “I know it’s difficult doing the jobs you do.

“I understand that your intent, in my belief, is always to hold the students in the best good. My concern is at this point, the image and the impact in the community is that the school board may be engaging in the endorsement of one religious viewpoint over another.”

Williams added that the “entire denomination” of the United Church of Christ, including his church, “support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in all elements of life and society, including life and society in our church.” He said, “it is important to me and the people of my denomination, and indeed my congregation, that we have freedom wherever there is an opportunity in society.”

“We believe religiously that inclusion is important because we believe that it is God’s will,” he said. “We hope that our religious beliefs are welcome in Hillsboro. We hope that our religious beliefs are not being censored out and legislated away by the actions that are taken in this place.”

The final speaker, Eli Fleming, spoke from the perspective of a transgender student in the district who has “experienced a lot of discrimination from the school.”

“I am severely disappointed that the play got canceled, for multiple reasons,” Fleming said. “People that were in the cast and crew were working so very hard, for so long, for this play. We were excited. Everyone was excited about it.”

Fleming added that being “called the wrong things constantly every day, by people, by adults I’m supposed to feel safe with, is hurtful.”

“For a play with representation like this to get canceled just shows how much the school values their students, and not in a good way,” Fleming said. “It shouldn’t matter what gender, sexuality, race, religion, whatever. It should not matter. We’re all people, and that’s what you guys should be teaching at this school — acceptance and love.”

The eighth speaker was unable to attend the meeting, and with no one else filling out a form to speak, Myers closed the public participation.

“We thank you for all of your concerns that were voiced,” Myers said.

According to the board president, each individual who spoke will receive a response in writing from the board within the next 10 days.

“We appreciate the arts here,” Myers said. “I am sorry to see that it has come to this situation.

“We’re sorry if you feel that’s the way things are. We love our kids here. We really do. Nobody’s on this board not to do the best we can by our students.”

Captain responded, “I hope your actions speak louder than your words.”

Superintendent Tim Davis did not address any of the comments and/or allegations during the meeting. After the meeting, he said the district had no comment other than that they would be considering the public participation.

“Myself and the administration will discuss the things that were brought up tonight in public participation,” Davis said. “We will be addressing those that spoke and will discuss the topics that were brought up tonight.”