NSAA moves to clean up "vulgar, profane, lewd acts" in speech and drama competition

A group of students prepare for the next round of speech competition at Lincoln Southeast High School. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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January 9, 2014 - 6:30am

The Nebraska School Activities Association is taking steps to clean up competition—not on the playing field-- but in speech and drama activities.


“I was up in arms, when I heard what was going to happen. Up in arms,” Carole Carraher said.

Carraher is an English teacher turned guidance counselor at Gretna High School in eastern Nebraska. She’s also in charge of play production.

What had her “up in arms” was a rule proposed by the Nebraska School Activities Association.  A rule the NSAA said was aimed at cleaning up the competition in the state’s speech and drama activities.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Carole Carraher is a guidance counselor at Gretna High School, where she also is in charge of play production. She said in her 30 years of experience producing high school plays, she's directed four which dealt with rapes. Carraher said students need to be taught tragedy is a part of life.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Matt Heimes is the head speech coach at Lincoln Southwest High School. He said he saw the performance of The Bondagers when Gretna High School performed it at the state one-act competition. Heimes said the play "was powerful and moved me in the way the director meant it to." Heimes said allowing students to explore human trauma and tragedy through characters will ultimately make students better people.

“Somewhere there was a knee-jerk reaction as far as I’m concerned, and it may very well have been with our show. I hope it wasn’t, but it might have been. I don’t know that. My friends tease me about it,” Carraher said.

The show she mentioned is a one-act play called The Bondagers, which tells the story of female slaves in 19th century Scotland. Gretna High School performed the play in the state competition last school year, and took first place.

In the play, a mentally handicapped teen is raped. No one argues The Bondagers deals with very adult content.

What is causing concern is whether high school students should be performing such material.

Carraher said the NSAA originally wanted to make any subject matter that dealt with violence, drug and alcohol use, sexual conduct or profanity deemed inappropriate for high school performance

Debra Velder is the associate director of the NSAA.

“[The NSAA] had a line on the ballots to address the appropriateness of the material, but evidently we’ve had some administrators that felt that schools or students were pushing the envelope, they were taking risks that were not appropriate for high school,” Velder said. 

The “ballots” Velder referred to are the forms used by judges to score performances.

In one-act play competition, and in speech—where students often act out plays or other literature—how a judge scores a performance determines success.

After the rule went through a committee comprised of speech and drama coaches, as well as administrators from across the state, Velder said a compromise was reached.

Administrators are now required to sign a form saying all play and speech materials presented are suitable for high school performance.

Also, a line to the judging ballot was added.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Debra Velder is the associate director of the Nebraska School Activities Association. Velder said she respects the fact students learn valuable life lessons in speech and drama activities. However, Velder says those activities are extensions of the classroom, and as such should be subject to the same rules and regulations. Velder said the new rules governing conduct in competition will not hinder a students ability to deal with adult-themed issues.

“If the information is profane, vulgar, or implies lewd acts that are not in the educational best interest of the performance, then rating points can be deducted,” Velder said.

She also said it’s important to note this rule does not impinge on free speech, because students can still use the same material, it’s just the context in which they use it which is subject to penalty.

But the rule leaves some ambiguity about what exactly constitutes profane, vulgar, or lewd acts.

David Beran, a senior at Gretna High School, said his curriculum is full of such things.

“You read about that stuff all the time in history class with things like the Holocaust and other events in history. It’s just the human race, that’s just kind of what happens. It’s not anything different than what the world is,” Beran said.

Doug Frank is a debate coach at Millard South in Omaha, and also has more than 20 years of experience as a speech coach.

“I think everybody kind of has their own basic idea of what they consider to be morally right and wrong. Unfortunately, that varies with as many people as you put in a room,” Frank said.

“I mean you ask five people what you think is considered acceptable and what isn’t, and you’ll have five different responses,” Frank added.

Photos by Ryan Robertson, NET News

ABOVE: David Beran is a senior at Gretna High School. He has been involved in speech and drama all four years of high school. He said the subject matter he performs during competition is no different than the types of literature he reads in the classroom.

BELOW: Gabriella Montemarano played Tottie in The Bondagers. The character is a 15-year-old mentally challenged girl who is raped. Montemarano was named best actress at the state competition for her portrayal of Tottie and is now attending Doane College in Crete, where she is studying to be a teacher.

Gabriella Montemarano, who played the rape victim in The Bondagers, was named best actress at the state competition for her performance. She is now on a theater scholarship at Doane College where she’s studying to be a teacher.

She said if the rule had been in effect last school year, she doesn’t know if things would have turned out the same.

“None of those three judges at state thought [the rape in the play] was inappropriate, or else they wouldn’t have put us first. What if that rule would have been there? Would they subconsciously say, ‘Oh there’s a rape, I have to put that it’s inappropriate?'” Montemarano said.

Not only could the new rule have affected her future, Montemarano said prohibiting high school students from performing plays with adult content actually limits their education.

“I just think people needed to know that was a real thing. There were women slaves in Scotland, and that’s just terrible and that still happens today.I think people forget about that,” she said.

Debra Velder said she understands the importance drama and speech play in the educational process, just like all activities the NSAA governs.

“It should be the same mindset, that if it’s not appropriate on the stage, or if it’s in the speaking room or the football field or the basketball court—you’re going to get penalized. There’s a technical there. It’s not acceptable behavior. It’s not good sportsmanship, and it’s not going to be permitted,” Velder said.

For her part, Carole Carraher is happy with the compromise made in the new ruling and will abide by it…so long as she can still teach students the best way she knows how.

“Education is about teaching about life, and sometimes life is not pretty,” Carraher said.

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