Some Bucks parents fight schools' use of R-rated films

Posted: October 05, 2010

Council Rock School District students don't have to go to the local cineplex to see movies with graphic sex, extreme violence, suicide, and other R-rated material.

They can catch many of those films in class.

The district's two high schools show dozens of R-rated movies - which those under 17 aren't allowed to see in theaters without an adult. That bothers some parents, who say the films are too violent or raunchy for teens.

"I care about what my kids watch," said Diana Nolan, who formed Parents Active in Responsible Education (PARE) to lobby the Bucks County district to ban R-rated films from classes such as world history, philosophy, and psychology.

Recently, the group handed out fliers at schools and filed a complaint with the state Department of Education alleging that the district was not following its own movie policy.

As movies in general become more graphic, the ones used in school curriculums follow suit. Policies vary widely, but teachers often supplement lessons with critically acclaimed films such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, both earning R's for gut-wrenching scenes of World War II and the Holocaust.

The district contends that the movies, or even just clips, are educational and that high school kids have seen it all anyway.

"Even in the most sheltered households, flipping through cable channels 1 to 200, you're going to see these images," said superintendent Mark Klein.

Not surprising is that young people don't want to be told what movies they can watch.

"I usually trust my teachers' judgment. If they think it can help us, then I think it's OK," said Darren Lauer, 17, a senior at Council Rock North High, adding, "I'm sure there's a fine line somewhere."

Klein said most parents and students have supported the district's movie policy, which requires parents' permission for students to see explicit films. Those not allowed have to leave class.

This year, Council Rock pared its R-movie list from about 70 to 52. Most of the discards were not being used, said Klein.

One of the most controversial movies was Kids, about an HIV-positive boy who has sex with virgins so he can pass on the virus. Kids originally received the rarely used NC-17 rating, which means those under 17 could not see it in theaters even with an adult, but it was later released with no rating.

Kids, which was screened for a number of years in the seniors-only human-sexuality class, was dropped this year, Klein said, because "it no longer fit our criteria."

Parents who sign permission slips do not always know what the movies are about, the PARE parents say. Nolan said she was shocked to find out Kids was so lurid, though she attended a school meeting prior to her stepdaughter's taking the sexuality class.

"She saw a very, very disturbing movie," Nolan said.

Other districts avoid the issue by adhering to industry ratings, which are guidelines for parents and theater owners with no legal ramifications. Neighboring Pennridge bans R as well as PG-13 movies.

"Under no circumstances, even clips," said Pennridge spokesman Joe Ferry. Teachers who want to show even squeaky-clean PG movies have to get approval from the principal and superintendent, and have to inform parents.

A media expert at the University of Pennsylvania said ratings do not tell the whole story.

"It's a tricky call. You have to look at each movie and how it is being used and what is the message," said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Health Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

He said he was surprised that Council Rock showed Kids. "There aren't many movies that get that rating," he said.

But PARE's hit list also includes literary classics such as Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. It's not that the parents have a problem with Shakespeare. But they would like the district to use cleaned-up television versions.

"Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino has 10 nude scenes. It isn't even historically accurate," Nolan said. "There were no prostitutes in the original play."

Macbeth has "some objectionable material, but that's the way Shakespeare wrote it," said Klein.

As for The Merchant of Venice, he said, "when there's nudity in a movie, most of the time the kids don't even see it."

Not all students are mature enough for adult-themed movies, and they could be too troubling for students who are grappling with serious problems such as suicide, the parents say. The animated Waking Life, for instance, shows a character covering himself in gasoline and setting it on fire, and another gouging out his eyes.

"Of all the movies, I found that the most disturbing," said PARE member Michael Colavita.

Michael Rich, a former filmmaker and now a Harvard University pediatrician who studies the effects of media on children, said that just because a movie is disturbing is no reason to ban it from school.

Though he called Kids "skin-crawlingly awful," he said that "in the right context, it can be used to teach good things," such as how to cope with HIV.

The gruesome D-Day landing scene in Saving Private Ryan is an accurate portrayal of the horrors of war. "It's not gratuitous violence," he said.

Mike Festa, a senior at Council Rock South who has seen Black Hawk Down and Frost/Nixon in class, said the issue is overblown.

"We're mature enough to understand that the movie has a point to the class and what we're working on," he said. Besides, "watching movies is always fun, R-rated or not."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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