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Principal and three defiant teens in standoff over banned word

By Diana Costello - The Journal News
Posted: March 7, 2007
Hannah Levinson, left, Megan Reback, center, and Elan Stahl - photo The Journal News Photos by Ricky Flores/The Journal News
Hannah Levinson, left, Megan Reback, center, and Elan Stahl each received one-day suspensions from John Jay High School for saying the word "vagina" during a reading of "The Vagina Monologues" at an open mic session at the school last week.

KATONAH - Three female students suspended for disobeying school administrators and saying the word "vagina" at a John Jay High School open mic session stood by their action yesterday, saying everyone should be comfortable with the word and with feminine sexuality.

"We had no doubt in our minds that we were willing to be 'insubordinate' to do the right thing and get this word out there, and we were willing to take whatever consequence," said Hannah Levinson, a junior.

"It just doesn't make sense for an administration to expect me not to talk about my body - it's mine," added Megan Reback, also a junior.

But school officials are also defending the decision to give each of the girls a one-day, in-school suspension.

They say the punishment has nothing to do with censorship, but rather is based on the girls agreeing to omit the word from their performance and then failing to honor the commitment.

The controversy centers on the "My Short Skirt" selection from Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," a book written in 1996 and since translated into 45 languages. The particular stanza that raised a red flag with administrators reads: "My short skirt is a liberation flag in the women's army. I declare these streets, any streets, my vagina's country."

School administrators say they initially asked the students not to read those lines because they feared the content would be inappropriate for younger members of the audience.

"The challenge is to balance the rights of student speakers and the sensitivities of the community," Principal Rich Leprine said in a statement.

The controversy has created a buzz throughout the community and beyond, with some people crying foul over what they say is the school's blatant attempt at censorship. Other people, meanwhile, say the girls were wrong to defy the administration and deserve what they got.

The story has also brought a storm of media attention to the affluent northern Westchester suburb. News crews trekked over unpaved roads that lead to large estates to interview the three students in Levinson's Katonah home, then set up cameras and microphones for a news conference with Leprine at the Cross River high school.

Sitting in front of a room of reporters, the principal said the school "recognizes and respects student freedom of expression," but that such freedom is not unfettered, especially when an activity or event is open to the general community.

The open mic night was being videotaped for a local cable television channel, and younger siblings were expected to be in attendance.

The principal went on to say that there is a "clear difference" between putting on a formal production of a play such as "The Vagina Monologues" and hosting an open mic session.

In the case of a formal production, the community would be aware of its content and able to make an informed decision about its appropriateness, Leprine said. As for an open mic session, the community expects the content to be suitable for the general population, he said.

"When a student is told by faculty members not to present specified material because of the composition of the audience, and they agree to do so, it is expected that the commitment will be honored and the directive will be followed," Leprine said. "When a student chooses not to follow the directive, consequences follow. The students did not receive consequences because of the content of the presentation."

One aspect of the administration's argument that perturbs the students is that they say the youngest person in the audience was in ninth grade. And regardless, they say, "vagina" is not a dirty word and people should not be embarrassed by it.

Ultimately, the students say they felt it would be an injustice to both literature and feminine sexuality to shy away from the word. They have been encouraged by the support of their parents and by a telephone call from Ensler, who saluted the girls as "vagina warriors."

"The message of this piece, if we took out the word 'vagina,' would be contradicting itself," said Elan Stahl, a junior. "And we shouldn't have to censor it and we're not going to censor our own bodies, and we're still going to be strong, independent women in the school."

Article at: thejournalnews.com