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Iowa High School Cancels Laramie Project Production, Calls it “Inappropriate”

“this is a show that deals specifically with bullying and the outcome that it had on an entire town because of one bullying incident. If they’re trying to get rid of bullying, then why would they say ‘no’ to this show?”

Chris Suarez | July 24, 2013

School officials at a southeast Iowa high school in Ottumwa cancelled plans for a student production of “The Laramie Project,” deciding that the play would be inappropriate for families of the school.

Ottumwa High School Principal Mark Hanson told the Des Moines Register that he agrees with the message of the play, but felt the show could not be done in his high school, “We were on the fence with it, but we came to the conclusion that it would be better at a community theatre.” Despite the cancellation, the show will still be presented at a local performing arts center where the show will not have to meet the same level of censorship as it would at Ottumwa High School.

The play is based on the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was robbed, tortured, and murdered by two men outside of Laramie, Wyoming. During the murder trial, it was reported that Shepard had been targeted because he was gay.

A similarly high-profile story of a high school production of the Laramie Project occurred in 2006, when West Des Moines’ Valley High School put on the play and was subsequently protested by the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.

In the years following the Valley controversy, Former Iowa Gov. Chet Culiver had signed an anti-bullying measure in 2007 that included sexual orientation and gender identity in the language of the bill. Gay marriage was also made legal in the state of Iowa in 2009.

Despite the bullying-ban, some gay students still face discrimination against fellow students. Last year in Iowa, a 14-year-old gay teen named Kenneth Weishuhn, Jr. committed suicide after what his family says was due to bullying at school and online.

According to LGBTQ Nation, The same amount of controversy has been generated in Ottumwa as was caused in Des Moines in 2006, with students, parents, and town residents being divided on the issue.

Some students are unhappy with the decision by the school principal, believing that the relevance of the play and it’s subject matter is important to the region.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Jordan Young, a junior in the thespian group putting on the play told LGBTQ Nation, “this is a show that deals specifically with bullying and the outcome that it had on an entire town because of one bullying incident. If they’re trying to get rid of bullying, then why would they say ‘no’ to this show?”

Pam Schulz, a Ottumwa resident who has nine grandchildren attending Ottumwa schools was relieved after hearing the play was being nixed by the school.

“When I saw the article in the paper, I thought, ‘Well, that’s certainly the right approach,’” Schulz said, “That’s not a play that should be promoted for any family entertainment. I’m especially concerned about the younger children. The way it’s presented is just not healthy for student entertainment.”

Ottumwa superintendent Davis Eidahl backed the school’s decision to cancel the play, but agrees that it’s message of tolerance is an important one. Eidahl, similar to Principal Hanson’s decision, believed that the school needs to put on a performance that’s more family friendly, “It’s an important show for people to see because of its powerful message about the brutality of intolerance and the senselessness of it, but we want to produce plays that encourage the greatest number of individuals and families to come out and watch.”

Natalie Saunders, the drama teacher for Ottumwa sought the help of Dale Dommer, the theatre director of the Bridge View Center. The student production of the Laramie Project will run at Bridge View Center in October.

As of now, Ottumwa High School has no production planned for the Fall semester.