Metro Weekly

‘Romeo & Juliet’ Censored by Florida School District

A Florida school district will only allow students to read excerpts of Shakespeare's plays due to fears of violating the "Don't Say Gay" law.

Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” – Original image by Dane Larsen, via Flickr

A Florida school district announced that students in its schools would no longer be permitted to read Williams Shakespeare’s plays in full due to sexual content.

The Hillsborough County School Board, which serves students in the Tampa area, justified its decision by casting it as complying with the state’s “Parental Rights in Education” Act, which has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics.

Under the law, teachers are prohibited from providing instruction or allowing classroom discussions on topics related to sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-12. The law has led some administrators to censor any content that is sexual in nature unless it pertains to an academic standard.

The Hillsborough County School District determined that many of Shakespeare’s works deal with or allude to sexuality (not to mention those works that contain cross-dressing characters), and should therefore be edited. As a result, some of the Bard’s classics, like Romeo and JulietMacbeth, and Hamlet, now have been barred from the classroom, with students only reading excerpts of the plays in order to meet basic curriculum standards.

The district said that teachers who violate the content restrictions for English classes could be subject to disciplinary action or have a complaint filed against them by a parent who believes the books or plays are “inappropriate” for minors to read.

If a student wishes to read the censored plays in their entirety, they’ll have to pursue other ways of obtaining the texts on their own time, such as by seeking them out at a public library or privately-owned bookstore not subject to state regulation.

Previously, English classes in the district required students to read at least two novels or plays during the school year. Now, students will read one novel and excerpts from five to seven books or plays, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

The district argued that the redesigned curriculum was to ensure students were prepared for a new set of state exams covering an array of books and writing styles. 

“We need to make sure our students are prepared with enough material during the year so they will be prepared for their assessments,” district spokeswoman Tanya Arja told the Times, noting that with excerpts, schools can avoid exposing students to any racy or sexual content.

“It was also in consideration of the law,” Arja said, referring to the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Hillsborough School Board member Jessica Vaughn said she felt blindsided and was frustrated that she only heard about the curriculum changes from community members, and not representatives of the school district. 

“I am extremely disappointed that the majority of our legislators and the governor’s hand-appointed department of education are not being reflective of ‘parental rights’ and are ramming through education laws/rules without thoughtful feedback from the community, without much guidance of how to implement these rules/laws without affecting student achievement, without much employee feedback and with almost no clarity of the penalties associated with these new laws, rules,” Vaughn wrote in a Facebook post.

She also referenced the school district’s decision not to offer AP Psychology or state education officials overhauling the way African-American history is taught in schools.

“Honestly, it feels that much of this is intentional, in order to cause as much chaos in public education as possible, so that the collapse of public education is swift and the agenda of education privatization can move forward with less obstacles,” Vaughn wrote.

Joseph Cool, a high school reading teacher, called the curriculum changes “absurd.”

“I think the rest of the nation — no, the world, is laughing at us,” Cool said. “Taking Shakespeare in its entirety out because the relationship between Romeo and Juliet is somehow exploiting minors is just absurd,” he said, noting that many of Shakespeare’s works contain material that some may find “raunchy.”

Cool said that teaching Macbeth to his 10th-grade class gave his students “a sense of connection between stuff that happened in the past and things that are not necessarily in the past.”

“The choices that we make, power struggles, delusions of grandeur. It is so rich in content and things that you can have discussions about, academic and scholarly discussions,” he told the Times

When asked if students would learn the same lessons or have that same experience focusing only on excerpts, rather than looking at the work in its entirety, he responded, “Absolutely not.”

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