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An OC School Removed Nazi Symbols From 'The Sound Of Music.' Some Parents Say It's Censorship

Three people stand on stage in costume during a rehearsal for "The Sound of Music." One man's costume has a swastika symbol on the arm.
Singers Rodney Gilfry and Sylvia Schwartz perform during a rehearsal of the musical "The Sound of Music" on Dec. 3, 2009 in Paris. Nazi symbolism was recently removed from a sixth grade performance of "The Sound of Music" at Rolling Hills Elementary in Fullerton.
(Pierre Verdy
AFP via Getty Images)
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The Fullerton School District is in the spotlight this week after its superintendent ordered that swastika props and “Heil Hitler" salutes be removed from a sixth grade production of The Sound of Music. Some parents and observers are applauding the decision, while others say it's censorship.

"I'm very concerned that we're now watering down the facts of history," said Susan Cordova, whose daughter is in the performance at Rolling Hills Elementary. The play runs throughout this week.

The controversy comes at a time of heightened sensitivity in Orange County school districts and across the country about what should and shouldn't be taughtor available — in public schools, and what role parents should play in making those decisions.

"The teachable moment is: How do teachers and principals and superintendents and school boards prepare for the next inevitable controversy?" said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College.

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What happened?

For decades, the sixth graders at Rolling Hills Elementary have performed a rotating set of plays, including a version of The Sound of Music, for fellow students and parents at the end of the school year.

The Sound of Music is the fictionalized story of the real-life von Trapp family — and, of course, their musical talents — as the Nazis prepared to take over Austria. Fullerton School District Superintendent Robert Pletka said in an email he made the decision to remove swastika props and “Heil Hitler" salutes from the performance after being contacted by Rolling Hills Principal Linda McNutt. (McNutt declined to speak with LAist for this story.)

The attendance policy was also changed. Students in grades K-3 must now be accompanied by a parent to see the play, while students in grades four through six must have a signed permission slip to watch or participate in the play. In past school years, all Rolling Hills students have watched the annual sixth grade performance.

Pletka said he made the decision to protect the safety of district students and staff, especially from the potential misinterpretation or misuse of images from the play.

"In this time of social media, it is likely that well-meaning parents and community members would share these images, inadvertently associating our children with signs, flags, armbands, and gestures linked to the atrocities of the genocide of the Jews," Pletka wrote in a statement. "Additionally, these signs, symbols and gestures continue to be used in association with heinous hate crimes even in present times."

Hear parents speak about The Sound of Music production at the May 16 meeting of the Fullerton School District Board of Trustees:

Peter Levi, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Orange County/Long Beach Regional Office, said his organization was contacted several weeks ago by parents concerned about the use of Nazi symbolism in the play. Levi said the issues they flagged led the anti-hate organization to contact Rolling Hills’ principal.

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"The concern is exposing young children without a deep understanding or context to a really challenging narrative and piece of history," Levi said. "To put elementary school-aged kids watching a performance where people are dressed in Nazi uniforms with swastikas and armbands, saying 'Heil Hitler' and doing salutes is not necessarily the soundest way to educate about World War II.”

At a May 16 school board meeting, several concerned parents reported that their young students had recently come home from school talking about Nazis. They said they didn't think students portraying Nazis on stage was appropriate and didn't think The Sound of Music was the right way to teach young children about the Third Reich and the horrors of the Holocaust.

"The discussion about what the Nazis did, there is no room for softballing that," a parent of an 8-year-old said during public comment at the board meeting. "We don't softball that conversation, we wait until kids are old enough to understand what they really did and then we tell them what they really did."

Other parents cry censorship

Other parents, however, told LAist they thought removing Nazi symbolism from the play was a knee-jerk reaction to parental complaints and akin to censorship.

Robin Ballon went to see the play Monday to show support for the teachers and sixth grade students — she assumed attendance would be down due to the parental permission requirement. Ballon has a personal connection to the production — her son, now in high school, performed in The Sound of Music as an elementary school student at Rolling Hills.

Ballon, along with other like-minded parents who spoke with LAist, said they see neighboring districts removing controversial books from libraries and banning curriculum and worry that the Fullerton district's restrictions on this year's performance could set a precedent. They don’t want a few angry parents to be able to derail school curriculum without a formal process in place for evaluating and responding to parent concerns.

"It's more about the process than this particular outcome," Ballon said. "If they're going to make decisions without a very clear review process, then that's a problem."

In response to a question from LAist about whether the Fullerton School District has a process for handling parent concerns, Pletka wrote in an email, "We welcome all parent and community input."

Can we have a conversation?

Balma, the political scientist, said she shares some parents' concerns that schools will water down or eliminate controversial topics to stave off controversy. In recent months, nearby Orange Unified and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified have made headlines over the removal of books with LGBTQ+ content and curriculum that discusses race and racial discrimination.

"There's a silencing effect before censorship, that teachers will self-select not to discuss controversial issues, not to assign controversial books, because they don't want to be condemned by other groups online or at their school boards," Balma said.

Balma also said schools can be more proactive about handling potential curriculum disputes. She suggests, for example, seeking help in advance from the nonprofit Orange County Human Relations Council, which is often brought in to mediate conflicts after, not before, they happen.

"If parents are concerned about curriculum content, we have this amazing resource of experts that can really deal with difficult conversations," Balma said.

Howard Sherman, a theater manager and writer who has written about The Sound of Music and arts censorship, said if any group is going to stage a licensed performance (which The Sound of Music is), they should tell the story the way it's written.

“If you only want to do it because you like the songs, then do a concert of the songs from The Sound of Music without staging it but simply singing it," he said.

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