The community of John Jay High School in Westchester County, N.Y. is in a tizzy over the word “vagina.”
It seems that three female high school juniors received permission to read part of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” during a public open mic session. But they were told to avoid using the word “vagina,” which is mentioned in the excerpt, because young children would be in the audience and it would be taped for local cable TV. (The students have countered that the youngest audience member was in ninth grade.)
With us so far?
The students — Megan Reback, Elan Stahl and Hannah Levinson — divided the piece into thirds and then read the final line of this section together:
My short skirt is a liberation
flag in the women’s army
I declare these streets, any streets
my vagina’s country.
They have all received one-day in-school suspensions — not for saying “vagina,” exactly, but for disobeying school officials. The students told the Journal News that they debated not saying “vagina,” but ultimately decided it was important to stay true to the work.
Both the students and the principal held press conferences on the controversy. And the principal sent this statement Tuesday morning outlining the school’s position.
As we wonder at what age, precisely, vagina is an acceptable word, we turn to the Journal News for the community reaction:
“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 read 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.”
Eve Ensler, who grew up in the same county, has weighed in: “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,” added Ensler.
The Journal News notes that 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.
The courts have been very generous to school authorities over the years, but It’s difficult to see how using the the word “vagina” does any of the above or could be considered “lewd.”
Allen Hershkowitz, a former town councilman and father of two students at John Jay high school, is right on when he says, “No one should be embarrassed to use the word ‘vagina.’ … It’s exactly the opposite message we should be teaching our children.”