Vickery Creek Middle School’s principal sent an apology to parents Monday night following the performance of a student play that district officials described as “racially insensitive.”
The play, “Sherlock Meets the Phantom,” was written in 1975 and includes a scene at the end of the performance where two characters eat magical peanuts that transform them into apes. Administrators took notice during one of the performances that the only Black student in the production was cast as one of these two characters.
The two in these roles, the Black student and one white student, did not wear costumes when they “transformed” into the apes on stage, but they instead acted as though they had turned into the animals.
While the student was the only Black student in the production, Forsyth County Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo said other students of color were in the three performances of the production held at the school.
Caracciolo explained the district made two major mistakes leading up to the middle school’s performances on April 28-30: first, she explained the play should not have been chosen as the students’ spring production.
The district has been working with all staff members since last year on diversity training through its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan as a way to help them see through a different lens, recognize the system’s growing diversity and create a more inclusive space in Forsyth’s schools.
FCS first approved the plan in 2013 and approved it again as part of its current five-year strategic plan. Staff members across the district have already participated in a Diversity 101 course, and the district is planning for another Diversity 201 course.
Despite the training, Caracciolo said Vickery Creek’s drama teacher made a mistake in selecting “Sherlock Meets the Phantom” as the school’s spring production.
“We need to have a safety net as a school system for our teachers so that there is a second review process so we can look at that and make sure that we’re not excluding anyone,” Caracciolo said.
While an administrative review is taking place, Caracciolo said she is unsure if the student auditioned for this particular role. Typically, students audition for a role and remain in that role throughout rehearsals.
“Regardless of whether or not he was in that role prior to [the show] or he had auditioned for that role, this play should have never been selected,” Caracciolo said. “It was racially insensitive.”
When asked if the teacher or any staff members would face disciplinary action, Caracciolo explained she cannot legally discuss personnel matters.
“I can [say] that the teacher, administration, our office — we are extremely upset by this, and we’re focused on making sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Caracciolo said.
Looking at the second major mistake, Vickery Creek administrators said they did not review the production before students began rehearsals or before their performances at the end of April.
The students have been working on the production since the beginning of the semester in January.
While they did not review the play before the students’ performances, the administrators did attend the performances and notified the district office immediately when they noticed that it was inappropriate and insensitive.
Caracciolo said the principal reached out to the student’s family that night to apologize.
“They understand that it was an isolated mistake, and they understand that the school is trying to do better and, as a district, that we’re trying to do better,” Caracciolo said. “And so we are moving forward with putting procedures in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Directly after the performances, administrators held a meeting with staff members to review what had happened, explaining why the content was racially insensitive.
Vickery Creek’s administration faced conversations regarding race less than two years ago when a group of their students sent messages containing sexual and racial profanity within a group on the social media platform Snapchat. The messages reportedly referred to slavery and threats of violence.
Caracciolo said the district plans to continue having these conversations surrounding race, diversity and inclusivity with staff members, especially through the trainings created through the DEI plan.
Learning from the situation at Vickery Creek, Caracciolo said the district will also be putting guidelines in place to make sure productions are approved through multiple channels in the future.
Normally, teachers and administrators work together to make sure projects such as school productions are appropriate, approving them from different curriculum areas.
“But we found out from this experience that is not consistent throughout our middle schools, and so as a district, we’re working to create some guidelines to ensure that it happens consistently across all of the schools,” Caracciolo said. “And not just for drama or theater, but for anything that is arts related.”
The district will continue to keep parents and guardians updated on any changes going forward.
“We failed,” Caracciolo said. “It’s one of those things that we’re learning along the journey as we work through this that we have to provide ways for people to look at information through a different lens.”