Slur in Lenox Memorial school play prompts a community conversation on inclusivity

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LENOX — The use of a gender-insensitive term during a recent middle school musical production has prompted a push for diversity education measures among district administrators, staff and students.

In an email to the community, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Principal Michael Knybel took the blame for the "derogatory, slang term" that was included in the musical production of "Shrek." "That term was the 'T' word (tranny)," he said, referring to a slur used to describe a transgender person.

"My number-one priority as Principal is to make all students feel safe and comfortable at this school and we made a mistake," Knybel said.

The incident also came up for discussion at Monday night's School Committee meeting. A parent, Jessie Fried, had submitted a letter to the committee earlier in the day about the "offensive language" and she suggested ideas "to make the school safe for all students," said committee Chairman Robert Vaughan.

The "inappropriate, offensive word was in the script as given to the kids," he pointed out. "I don't know what conversations may have transpired prior to the actual production but the performances went on with the word used" in all the shows.

In response to messages received about the incident, schools Superintendent Kimberly Merrick swiftly arranged a workshop presentation for the middle school students on Monday by Gwendolyn VanSant and her team from the nonprofit organization Multicultural Bridge, which promotes training and education to achieve safety, equity and justice.

"I'm feeling very badly that the word came out in this way," Merrick said. She noted that she has talked with the theater director and the principal about some "new systems for reviewing our plays before we select them."

Merrick stated that parents would be invited to attend the first reading of plays in the school auditorium and provide feedback, since "they may hear something we didn't hear." The procedure will be in place for future productions, she added.

Parent and student forums as well as other activities will be planned with Multicultural Bridge involvement, the superintendent said.

In his message, Knybel was clear about taking responsibility for the incident.

"I own the mistake," he acknowledged. "It ultimately is my job to eliminate hate-speech, slang and derogatory labels. As a team of educators, students and community members, we wish to eliminate name-calling, bias and stereotypes of any kind, and stop bullying.'

"We understand that the word hurt many people in our Lenox Community and beyond. It alienated and hurt people in our community in a manner in which we never wanted. This is very serious and I am sure no one here would ever want anyone to feel bullied, hopeless or even turn to self-harm over our choice of words."

Knybel emphasized that he felt "grateful for the members of the community that did reach out to me to share their pain and explain their hurt. They reached out to me to assist me in changing our ways to be ever more inclusive with all community members."

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As the principal stated, "They didn't come to place blame, they didn't come to shame. They spoke up to protect others from feeling left out, unwanted, mocked and even ridiculed."

Addressing the school and the wider community, Knybel voiced hope to "partner with them and you, so we will do things better as we move forward. We will learn from this mistake as we learn from all our mistakes. With a growth mindset, we know that when we make mistakes, we do what we can to correct them."

Vaughan voiced appreciation for Knybel's message to the community."But I think it also needs to go to the people running activities, to be sensitive and maybe it was just not known to everybody that this word might be offensive," Vaughan said.

"I absolutely know that it wasn't intentional," Fried told the School Committee. "The problem as I see it was that so many adults were part of this or saw it, and didn't know. That indicates to me that there's some work to do so that our educators do understand a little bit more about gender identity and about how to make the school a welcoming, safe place for kids across the gender spectrum."

She called for "teaching kids about people who are different from them, which I know is the goal of the teachers there" and urged communication with the state Department of Education's Safe Schools program for training on LGBTQ-plus issues at no cost to the district.

"The people I have met are truly excellent at doing this work both with educators and students," Fried said. "They know how to very specifically work with teachers to make sure this is all included in their curriculum and in the way they work with students to make sure the district is complying with the state law, and making all our kids feel safe and welcome."

Fried expressed appreciation for "the seriousness with which everyone's taking it, a quick response so that the middle school could talk about it today."

As School Committee member Robert Munch suggested, "it's a learning opportunity for everybody. It's a fast-moving landscape, it's hard to keep up and not all of us can spend all our time on gender issues, so it's great if we can draw from the resources of the community and the state to try to quicken our learning curves."

And member Francie Sorrentino pointed out that "I don't want to discount the performance either; it was phenomenal and each kid did a great job."

Health and Wellness teacher Sarah Burdsall noted that she attended a recent presentation by Multicultural Bridge on gender identity "to make sure all our students feel very comfortable. It was very moving; it made me cry. We're really not very well-educated on the gender identity piece, and we have to do a better job."

Knybel, the principal, said more work is forthcoming "to train our faculty and staff to be even more inclusive in our school." The administration will meet this summer "to plan to continue this important work of social and diversity awareness and prepare to bring more education to students, faculty, staff and the Lenox Community."

In his widely distributed email, he included a video of the Multicultural Bridge presentation by VanSant and her volunteers, as seen by the middle school students at an assembly on Monday morning.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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