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Ventura County Perspective

Good Movie, Bad Moves

March 12, 2000

Sharing the powerful wake-up-and-live-your-life-with-gusto message of the movie "American Beauty" with 17- and 18-year-old high school students?

Good idea.

Showing the R-rated film to them in class without clearing it with the school board, as district policy requires, and even after being ordered to stop?

Bad idea.

Reprimanding the teacher for adding such an edgy element to her lesson plan without getting her supervisors' OK?

Good idea.

Having her arrested, handcuffed and hauled out of a classroom full of students?

Bad idea--if there's any other way. But then, the instruction manual for high school principals and superintendents doesn't exactly cover what went down last week in an English class at Santa Paula High School.

Teacher Mary Louise Rawn-Peterson, 41, was taken into custody by police on trespassing charges after district Supt. William Brand suspended her for defying his order to leave the classroom and meet with school officials.

Rawn-Peterson, a first-year teacher at the school, had been reprimanded for not obtaining permission to show the film, which is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It tells the story of a man stuck in a stagnant job and marriage who falls in love with his teenage daughter's classmate. Much like the highly praised 1989 movie "Dead Poets Society," "American Beauty" challenges viewers to snap out of their rut and take charge of their lives. It also contains numerous scenes and themes that some parents could find objectionable.

Although an R rating means no one under age 17 is permitted to view the movie in a theater without being accompanied by a parent or adult guardian, Rawn-Peterson said most of the students who saw the movie are 18 and had received permission from their parents. She said she fast-forwarded through a scene of nudity.

We admire teachers who seek timely, topical ways to convey important lessons to their students. But showing "American Beauty" was clearly a controversial decision. We question the common sense of an employee who would take such an action without first obtaining her employers' approval.

There are plenty of ways to pique students' interest within the bounds of district policy--teachers all over Ventura County do it every day.

It is regrettable that the teacher was arrested and handcuffed in a roomful of students. Yet in the wake of incidents such as the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado, school officials can be forgiven for erring on the side of caution when dealing with an unpredictable situation.

A teacher who ignores district rules, defies a direct order from the administration and refuses to leave the classroom despite being suspended fits that description.

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