Parents’ worries spark response

FAIRMONT – It’s called Project Trust, and Fairmont Area Schools has been putting it on for almost 30 years.

But when the skit – which addresses issues such as good touch/bad touch, pornography and sexting -was presented recently to elementary students, some parents became very upset.

Sara Cyphers first became concerned when her second-grade son, Gage, came home from school and started to tell them about a skit he saw in school. Soon he became embarrassed and unwilling to talk about it.

“He is usually a very open kid,” she said. “He went into shutdown mode.”

When Cyphers asked him what it was about, Gage said it was about “bad things.”

Alarmed, Cyphers called the school and learned about the skit. She asked for a copy of the script, which she was given.

Cyphers wasn’t the only parent surprised that night by what their children saw in school, but she was one of only two families that went to the school about it.

Facebook erupted in a barrage of parents checking with others to see if their kids had seen the same thing.

Parents who talked to the school had two main concerns: that they weren’t notified about the skit and that the language at the end of the program used words students didn’t understand, distracting from the message.

Facebook concerns seemed to center on the examples given to students of bad touch – including a grandparent tickling a child in an inappropriate way.

The skit was presented largely in pantomime, with almost no props.

“Opposite sex” and “sexual contact” were used in the concluding paragraph of the skit, according to Cyphers.

“I think the message is a good one,” Cyphers said, “but the students were too young to understand the words used. It confused them.”

School board member Nicole Green has a student in second grade, and Cyphers called her to hear her response to the skit.

Green said her child said only that it was weird, but Green wasn’t surprised by the program. Her older children had seen it, and her second-grader’s teacher sent home a note about it.

“I don’t think it was ever something that was meant to be hidden,” she said.

Green said there are teachers new to second grade since the last time the skit was presented, who perhaps weren’t fully aware of the content of the skit and didn’t send home a note.

The skit’s content was designed by Project Trust and performed by local high school students who had undergone two days of training on the topic of abuse and other issues presented in the skit. In addition, Nancy Backer, the district’s nurse, narrated the skit and was available for students who needed additional help after hearing the message.

“We watch them very closely,” Backer said.

Green said the message of the skit is to empower children.

“The purpose was to empower children to tell them it isn’t their fault and it is OK to tell someone,” Green said, “and if they don’t do something, tell someone else.”

High school principal Dave Paschke said he understands the concern parents have about this topic, but he feels the Illusion Theatre skit has proven itself helpful to students.

“This is difficult for family, parents and teachers to talk about in general,” he said. “This is a very unique and powerful way to talk about a difficult topic. If one or two kids are helped by this it is worth it, and my guess is that it will help a lot more than that, but we will never know for sure.”

Nevertheless, the district agreed to look into changing some of the language to more vague terms – like “bad touch” instead of “sexual contact” to avoid confusion.

Green agrees it was the right move.

“Even if it isn’t [words] they are squirmy about, it needs to be words they understand,” she said.

Because the script is copyrighted by Project Trust, Backer said the district will work with that group to ensure the school can use the changes.

Cyphers said she is satisfied with the action the district is planning to take, and she feels like the district was responsive to her concerns, although she worries some parents of less-talkative children might not even be aware the skit took place.

“Our hope is that our parents are teaching this at home,” Green said, “and this is a supplement to that teaching.”