Superintendent of Eagle County School District issues apology over ‘controversial content’ of Vilar STARS field trip
A show attended last week by local students prompted concerns from some parents
A STARS field trip in April to the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek prompted outrage from some parents of students who attended the show.
On Wednesday, April 12, at the Eagle County School District’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman took the opportunity to apologize and take responsibility for the fact that “some of our students were exposed to a show that included controversial content.”
“I’m sorry if your child was among those who were hurt by this experience,” Qualman said. “Moving forward, we’ll work hard to rebuild that trust and make sure you are well-informed and have agency in your child’s education.”
STARS, which stands for Support the Arts Reaching Students, has been a partnership between the school district and the Vilar for over two decades. The program allows students from the district’s schools to attend shows at the performing arts center throughout the year. On Wednesday, April 5, students from several schools were attending the Cirque Flip Fabrique’s performance of “Muse.”
Qualman said that ahead of the show, he was notified by Vilar Executive Director Owen Hutchinson that Fabric show “lightly addresses themes of gender and questions the various roles and expectations of men and women.”
“I reviewed a teacher’s guide, which was provided by the performance group, and I watched a promo clip of the show. The content I was provided made some references to gender roles, gender equity and gender identity. The vast majority of the information was about Cirque-style performances and the techniques of the group,” Qualman said. “I recognized there would be some who may object to the gender-related content.”
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According to Qualman, this prompted him to order that district students “be required to submit active permission slips to attend,” as opposed to the “default assumption that all students attend on the universal Vilar permission slip that’s signed at the beginning of the school year.”
“I directed that the permission slip be transparent and descriptive about the content of the show so that parents could make an informed decision. My directions were received. The permission letter was drafted, but it was never delivered to principals or to parents,” Qualman said.
This error, Qualman added, is one he will handle “internally as a confidential personnel matter.”
“I understand that the buck stops with me, and I’m here to take responsibility and to apologize for that error being made,” he added.
“We’re a public school district owned by taxpaying citizens like all of you. Our community is diverse in language, ethnicity, as well as religious and political beliefs,” Qualman later stated. “We have a responsibility to make sure every family feels like they’re respected by our policies and our practices. And in this incident, we failed in that regard. I understand that this violated a precious trust that you give to your child’s school, to the district, and to me. I’m sorry we let you down, I’m sorry that I let you down.”
Mike Imhof, the president of the Vail Valley Foundation, which owns and operates the Vilar, also spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, offering his own apology for the situation.
“We understand that there are parents of students who attended the STARS performance on April 5 who found the content upsetting or objectionable,” Imhof said. “It is certainly never our intent to offend, and we apologize to those who are offended in this case. You have our commitment that we will work harder and more closely with district staff to avoid a situation like this in the future.”
These apologies were given to a group of parents at Wednesday’s meeting who attended to raise their concerns about the show to the board. While those that spoke expressed their gratitude for Qualman’s acknowledgment and apology, they also expressed their concerns over the show’s content.
One father that spoke, David Havens, expressed that there have been some “situations that have gone on that have shaken our trust” since he and his family moved to the district a few years ago. Havens added that he hoped for more outreach with parents in the future.
“All of us as parents, we’re all in for these schools, we’re all here to make things better,” Havens said. “We would like for you to reach out to the parents; we’re not the bad guys. Speak to us, talk to us, we want to help — there’s more and more we can do … just ask us if you could use some help.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Qualman added that the incident has prompted a few changes with regard to field trip programming in the future.
“At the beginning of the school year, parents signed a blanket field trip permission form that covers all of the STARS family series performances held at The Vilar. This practice is insufficient to inform parents about the content of shows and is insufficient in providing timely notification when field trips are imminent,” he said.
“In the future, ECSD schools will actively notify parents several days in advance of every field trip and include a clear description of the content of the field trip and allow parents adequate time to research the content and opt-out their child if they don’t think the show is appropriate.”
He also added that the district and board will be looking at every Memorandum of Understanding the district has with youth-serving nonprofits in Eagle County with “a fine tooth comb and make sure that there’s greater specificity and accountability in those MOUs.”