Our Opinion: A teaching moment in Lenox school

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The anguished response in Lenox to the use of a gender-insensitive word in a middle school play speaks well of the community. This incident can certainly be used as an educational moment, but we hope will not trigger recrimination or overreaction.

A school production of "Shrek the Musical" contained the word "tranny," which is a derogatory word used to slander a transgender person. Parents complained, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Principal Michael Knybel took responsibility in an email to the community, and Superintendent Kimberly Merrick arranged a workshop presentation for the middle school students by Multicultural Bridge. (Eagle, May 15.)

Ironically, the "Shrek" franchise, since its first incarnation as a 2001 animated film, has featured tolerance and embracing of diversity as its central theme. However, in recent years an increase in cultural sensitivity has rendered some slang words and phrases that were long part of the lexicon unacceptable.

This is welcome, but as society tries to adapt to this new sensitivity the process has been rocky. Kate Smith's iconic version of "God Bless America" has been banned at Philadelphia Flyers hockey games and New York Yankees baseball games — and her statue removed in Philadelphia — because it was discovered that she sang songs with racially insensitive lyrics in the 1930s. Ms. Smith was by no means a racist and judging her by actions of 80 years ago by the standards of today is unfair and could lead to a purging of all manner of gifted artists from an earlier era.

Incidents and actions must be judged in context, and that includes the failure to remove the derogatory word from the school play. There was no intent to injure, as there so often is at a time when President Trump has given license to bigots to proudly go public with their bigotry. This is a case of human and systemic error, and we trust the sincerity of Lenox school officials when they promise that measures will be taken to prevent a recurrence. We urge residents, however well-intentioned they may be, to leave the process going forward to those officials. There have been examples of parent groups across the country that evolved into self-appointed censors plaguing the school district. Follow-up should be left to capable education professionals.

Last month, the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth reported that LGBTQ students remain more likely than their peers to be bullied at school or online or to skip school because they feel unsafe. This has been the case since the commission was formed in 2012. They are three times more likely than other students to have considered suicide and about 16 percent of Massachusetts high school students identifying as gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning made a suicide attempt in the past year. Massachusetts voters can be proud that last November they soundly rejected a ballot referendum that would have overturned a 2016 state law protecting transgender people from discrimination.

Lenox residents can be similarly proud of their reaction to the use of a word in a school play that was surely hurtful to any LGBTQ students or audience members. This isolated incident, however, doesn't reflect poorly on the school department — it is instead a reminder of the need to be both vigilant and wise in adjusting to a welcome new environment where words and phrases that should never have been readily acceptable no longer are.

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