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Cross River Students Suspended for Saying 'Vagina' at Open Mic Session


Originally published in:
The Journal News
03/06/2007

Diana Costello and Susan Elan
http://www.nyjournalnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070306/NEWS02/...

CROSS RIVER - Saying the word "vagina" during a reading at a John Jay High School open mic session has resulted in suspension for three female students and has sparked a debate about censorship throughout the community.

School administrators had warned the girls it would be inappropriate to say the word while reading a selection from Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," but the students were willing to suffer the consequences.

Now Ensler, a playwright and feminist who grew up in Scarsdale, has offered to visit the Katonah-Lewisboro school district to discuss the matter.

Juniors Megan Reback, Elan Stahl and Hannah Levinson will each serve separate one-day, in-school suspensions this week, Reback said.

"When I was able to say the word 'vagina' and be proud to say it -- and it wasn't crude and it wasn't inappropriate and it was very real and very pure, it was important to me," Reback said yesterday. "We were willing and ready to take whatever came."

The administrators' decision to suspend the girls has caused an uproar within the school, with students making T-shirts and posters to protest the punishment. A group opposed to the suspension has been created on Facebook.com, a popular Internet networking site, and had attracted more than 350 members yesterday.

The move has prompted parents to write to the Board of Education and circulate e-mails calling the suspension a "blatant attempt at censorship."

School board President Peter Breslin said the decision to suspend the students was not about censorship, but rather about insubordination. He said school administrators had been concerned about the use of the word because young children would be at the open mic session, and the girls had agreed not to say it.

"I think the students need to understand that if you make an agreement with the administration to do something, and then you don't do it, there's going to be consequences for that," he said. "We are very committed to free expression and we do not tolerate censorship in our district."

"The Vagina Monologues" is a book based on interviews with more than 200 women about their experiences of sexuality. Since being written in 1996 as a response to the guilt and embarrassment many women still connect with their bodies, the book has been translated into 45 languages and been performed in cities throughout the world.

The piece has also led to the founding of "V-Day," an international grass-roots movement dedicated to stopping violence against women. It is celebrated Feb. 14 with people performing "The Vagina Monologues" and raising money for the cause.

Ensler offered yesterday to take part in a public meeting to discuss with students, parents and educators why it was important for girls of high school age to feel comfortable saying the word "vagina."

The author said much of the violence that happens to women in the United States occurs because they are "disempowered by lack of education."

"What is wrong about the word 'vagina,' which is the correct biological term for a body part?" Ensler asked. "It is not slang. It is not dirty or racy. The fact that it was censored is an indication of exactly what is going on in American schools, where girls and boys are not being educated about their bodies in a healthy way. We're pushing everything into the closet.

"We need open, healthy sex education where girls know and love their bodies," said Ensler, who addressed the United Nations yesterday during an international conference dedicated to stopping rape as a weapon in conflict.

The controversy in Cross River centers around the verse: "My short skirt is a liberation flag in the women's army. I declare these streets, any streets, my vagina's country."

The words were part of a longer selection, which the three girls had divided among themselves.

Leading up to the performance, the girls had debated whether to say the word that they knew would get them into trouble. One idea they discussed was to not actually say the word, but rather hold up a sign with the word written on it.

Ultimately, however, they decided to say "vagina" because they did not feel they had the liberty to change a work of art.

All three girls read the final line together, as a sign of unity.

"I think almost everyone can agree it's important to uphold the integrity of literature and not change or alter it," Reback said.

School administrators did not return requests for comment yesterday, but Breslin, the board president, pointed to the district's stance against censorship during a debate over Nadine Gordimer's "July's People." The book is part of the 10th-grade curriculum, despite parents' criticism about its sexual and racial content.

As for a student's right to free expression, the U.S. Supreme Court has said students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Public school officials, however, may regulate student expression that substantially disrupts the school environment or that infringes on the rights of others. Many courts have held that school officials can restrict student speech that is lewd, The First Amendment Center said.

Allen Hershkowitz, a 51-year-old environmental scientist with two children in the high school, said suspending the students was not only a form of censorship, but was also bad educating. He would like to see the administrators apologize for making a mistake.

"No one should be embarrassed to use the word 'vagina,' " said Hershkowitz, a former Lewisboro town councilman. "It's exactly the opposite message we should be teaching our children. ... That's when problems arise, when they're not informed and not feeling comfortable referring to their bodies."