Students at Palo Alto High School are rallying to the defense of historical re-enactment plays in a controversy over whether the future of the 17-year-old program is threatened.
At issue is what new Paly Principal Jackie McEvoy said – or didn't say – during a private meeting with history teacher Mike McGovern Thursday.
The meeting, and McGovern's angry in-class response immediately afterward that McEvoy was "trying to kill the program," have ignited the school. He regrets the outburst and has tried to correct the perception that McEvoy is out to get the program, McGovern said.
McEvoy said she is not trying to end the re-enactments and considers them powerful and a "great teaching tool."
But over 100 upset Paly students participated in a pro-McGovern chant Friday during lunch to demonstrate support for the teacher's plays, which they feel are threatened by McEvoy's involvement.
McGovern has organized the historical re-enactments four times annually for 17 years at Paly.
"The Black Death," the usual fall play, concludes with the "Grim Reaper" character warning students of the modern plagues of drugs and alcohol.
McGovern said McEvoy told him to change the end of the play, suggesting it imposed religious beliefs on students.
Yet her concerns are about the safety of the staging area, not about content, McEvoy said.
"That is a lie. She's lying," McGovern responded when informed of McEvoy's denial about the religious aspect.
The re-enactments are student-produced plays McGovern stages four times annually to breathe life into history lessons. He said he volunteers up to 800 hours of time while students direct and act, he said.
The plays are a beloved aspect of Paly's curriculum that students find affecting and powerful, he said.
"I want to be a teacher and do an after-school-theater program for elementary students, and I wouldn't have known this otherwise," said senior Ali Aram, who acted in the plays and co-directed "The Black Death" play this year.
Yet McEvoy said she attended the reenactment about Medieval Europe's 14th Century bubonic plague on Friday afternoon and left with safety concerns.
She called a meeting on Thursday with McGovern and history instructor Eric Bloom to discuss her concerns. Bloom could not be reached Friday for comment.
"I'm concerned that there is not proper egress. People have to be able to get out," McEvoy said on Friday.
The stage's entrance is through a dangerously low, narrow and dark tunnel and exit areas are not well-marked, she said.
McGovern said he responded on Thursday by explaining that the exits were in fact marked and the tunnel lit.
"The fire department went through years ago and said we were fine," he recalled saying.
He was speechless when he heard McEvoy's other concern, he said.
"She suggested I might be imposing my own personal or religious views on the kids," he said.
In the meeting, McEvoy said she was disturbed by an emotionally gripping scene where the audience is transported to modern times and the Grim Reaper discusses his contemporary victims, he said.
The Grim Reaper points to students who have been drinking heavily at a party and speaks of his delight in killing them off through drunk driving, drugs or AIDS, McGovern said.
McEvoy said in the meeting that the ominous figure could be interpreted at Satan gleefully punishing teenagers who have sinned, he said.
McGovern said McEvoy also disagreed McGovern's comparison of the Medieval and modern epidemics.
"She said, 'I don't see any connection between the black death and HIV and drugs and alcohol,'" McGovern recalled.
McGovern became so upset he left the meeting, he said.
He denied that the play had religious undertones or that his own beliefs ever entered the classroom.
"I am a born-again Christian but I never say anything about that in my class," he said.
Yet some students do interpret the room as Hell and the Grim Reaper death figure as Satan, a perception he always corrects, he said.
"When kids say, 'Hey, that was like Satan,' I say, 'No, it was the Grim Reaper,'" he said.
But she is not concerned about the play's possible religious undertones, McEvoy insisted on Friday.
Her concerns about the reenactments related entirely to safety, she said in a morning announcement to students.
She could not discuss a private meeting with a school employee, she later told reporters. But she has not requested changes to the play's substance, she said.
"I haven't dealt with content yet," she said.
The student outcry was triggered in large part by an emotional in class outburst by McGovern after the Thursday meeting that McGovern told theWeekly he regrets.
He said he returned to his classroom infuriated, slammed his fist on the desk and blurted out, "She's trying to kill the program."
Students rushed out and ran to the principal's office before he could stop them, he said.
On Friday, Aram led students in a pro-McGovern chant during a school-wide spirit week event in the center of campus and helped circulate petitions not to change the re-enactments.
She said some students were making anti-McEvoy t-shirts and angry parents were also writing letters to the principal.
Shaken by rumors McGovern might end the reenactment program and quit the school, crying students trickled in to see the teacher on Friday at lunch, junior and Voice reporter Jason Park said.
"So many kids came in crying, and teachers, too," he said.
But McGovern does not plan to quit, he said.
And McEvoy does not want to cancel the reenactments, she said.
"I see them as incredibly powerful and a great teaching tool," she said.
His strong reaction in front of students on Thursday afternoon came from years of pent-up disappointment and frustration, McGovern said.
Despite volunteering much time and effort and receiving consistently positive student feedback, he has never been financially compensated, he said.
Principals have consistently denied his requests to be given an extra, paid period to prepare or paid time off during days such as staff-development days, he said.
The meeting with McEvoy was "the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.
The angry reaction from McGovern and students was also fueled by a widespread perception of McEvoy as a newcomer is tampering with time-honored traditions.
"I'm fuming. I'm furious. … She has had no experience with the program. … She has been here for three months and she's telling me what to do," McGovern said.
"We've been here for four years, and [the re-enactments have been going on for 17 years. She just doesn't have any right to come in here and start changing things," Aram agreed.
McEvoy's changes to the school dance policy earlier this year and an announced effort to encourage more students to take standardized tests had already predisposed students to suspicion, Park said. And the he-said-she-said controversy about the meeting is only worsening the situation, he said.
For now, there are no plans to change the plays, McGovern said.
"I'm going to continue the re-enactments this year but I'm not changing anything," he said.
Her requests to improve set safety should be easily met, McEvoy said.
But she does have a policy of screening original scripts written by school staff or students before performances, she said.
There has never been a disagreement between her and a writer that couldn't be resolved, she said.