BRUNSWICK — Several parents confronted the School Board Wednesday evening about a film shown in a Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School music class earlier this year.
The 1991 Disney Channel TV film, “Perfect Harmony,” is set at a private school in the South in the 1950s. It depicts racism at the school, and a choir director who attempts to reduce it. The unrated film also includes the use of explicit racial epithets.
“Perfect Harmony” was originally supposed to be used in music classes for three weeks, but was pulled after two weeks, following complaints from parents.
Principal Heather Blanchard and Assistant Principal Joshua Levy sent a letter to parents Feb. 5 explaining why the movie was shown and their plan to assess its impact on students.
The letter said the film was intended “to facilitate discussion around civil rights,” and to “bring awareness to the connections between the songs and the message of civil rights.”
“The unintended outcomes of the film were that some children were upset, afraid, and others were confused by the message of the movie due to specific scenes,” the letter said. “These issues were brought to administration last week as parents were concerned around the message that children were taking away from the movie.”
The letter also said administrators met Feb. 5 to discuss next steps, and that “trained student behavioral and mental health support staff” would be working with music classes to collect student reflection through a journaling activity.
From that response, the letter said, school officials would plan “how to facilitate additional supports for students,” choosing activities based on need and impact.
Music teachers Cindy Brown and Jill Hodgdon also wrote letters to Blanchard apologizing for showing the film and explaining its connection to Civil Rights-era songs students learned in previous weeks.
Amanda Similien, a mother of two school children, was one of four parents who addressed the board Wednesday.
“This movie was rife with bullying, racial slurs, racial innuendos, smoking in school, religious styling and just outright violence,” Similien said. “It is my understanding that there was minimal lead-in or discussions afterward about the images seen.”
She added she was not notified in advance about the film, and suggested teachers receive diversity training, and look for modern ways to teach race relations, such as free online multimedia.
Vineet Shende, associate professor of music and chairman of the music department at Bowdoin College, also spoke. He said he agreed with others about the inappropriate content of the film, but also objected to how the story was told.
“Something that hasn’t really been talked about in this movie, which is about civil rights, (is) the movie itself is told from a white male protagonist view,” Shende said.
Specifically, he said he took issue with how “Perfect Harmony” used black characters as devices to advance its plot.
“Growing up as a minority in a largely white community, I can tell you that things like that make you feel like you are a supporting member in someone else’s play,” Shende said.
Before the meeting Wednesday, Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin said administrators regret that the movie was shown.
“I do know that the entire school administration, those of us here at the central office, were deeply regretful that the movie was shown, and we’re sorry about that,” Makin said. “We believe the intent was a noble intent, to combine regular classroom instruction with some of these extremely important and complex issues.”
She said the movie contained “developmentally inappropriate content” for the students and oversimplified the issues it portrayed.
“When we provide too simplistic a message, it tends to gloss over the significant issues around race and privilege,” she said.
Going forward, Makin said the department hopes to mitigate the lack of diversity in Brunswick schools “through an educational and restorative approach.”
“I would be grateful for anybody in this community who is willing to take this unfortunate mistake and help us to leverage it for positive change,” she said.
In a discussion of the 2018-2019 budget Wednesday evening, administrators outlined the budget process, how recent changes in state subsidies may affect Brunswick, and the department’s five-year personnel plan.
Business Manager Kelly Wentworth said Brunswick came out “relatively neutral” in state subsidies for fiscal year 2019. The most prevalent change from last year, she said, is the change in how Career and Technical Education Funding is distributed, which will now be paid directly to Region 10 Technical School.
Previously, Brunswick had a line in its state funding formula earmarked for CTE funding, which it then administered to the technical school.
She added Brunswick has been approved to purchase four new school buses on a reimbursement model; the department will be paid back through state subsidy.
Brunswick School Board member William Thompson takes notes, left, as Vineet Shende, an associate professor of music and chairman of the music department at Bowdoin College, speaks about the film “Perfect Harmony” during public comment at the board’s Feb. 14 meeting.