A change to the theatrical schedule of a fifth-grade class in Lancaster County isn’t typically front-page news. But Centerville Elementary School in East Hempfield Township unexpectedly found itself in the spotlight this month.
It started on Dec. 15, when ABC27 News aired a segment that stated the annual fifth-grade performance of A Christmas Carol at Centerville Elementary was being cancelled because parents had complained about the play’s content — in particular the last line: “God bless us, every one.”
Reporter Christina Butler interviewed East Hempfield District spokesperson Shannon Zimmerman, who said the decision to cancel the production was not about the play’s content.
“It’s not a part of the written curriculum of fifth grade, but students and teachers were required to participate in it, and we can’t allow that to continue,” Zimmerman told Butler.
Fox News’ Todd Starnes wasn’t buying the notion that the decision was purely curricular. He wrote an opinion piece about the play’s cancellation that Fox titled “Godless Grinches try to take Christ out of Christmas”; alt-right website Breitbart also covered the story.
In the wake of the Fox News and Breitbart stories, which both went viral, Centerville Elementary received hundreds of emails and phone calls, according to Lancaster Online’s Heather Stauffer, who wrote that the whole dustup caused one Lancaster Jewish family to leave town in an article originally headlined, “Jewish family leaves Lancaster County in fear after being blamed for cancellation of Hempfield elementary Christmas play.”
“The fifth-grader’s parents … say they didn’t complain about the play or request that it be canceled, but just asked in September if their child could be excused from the play, and were told yes,” Stauffer wrote. “Since the school announced the cancellation in November, however, they say the child has been harassed by classmates.”
Stauffer also reported that the Jewish student’s parents became especially afraid after reading some of the Breitbart comments — things like, “Like to find out the names of these parents, you know — so I could put them on my Christmas card list” and “It would be nice if we had the addresses of those concerned citizens and, I bet, this info is known to people living in the area.”
Stauffer’s article on the Jewish family was picked up by a number of larger media outlets, like Slate and The Washington Post. But the ADL released a statement contradicting the reporter’s claims.
“News reports alleging that a Jewish family has ‘fled’ Lancaster County are untrue and damaging,” ADL Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer said in a statement. “We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously planned vacation for the holidays. Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation.”
Stauffer’s article now has a note at the top now that reads:
“The family told LNP and LancasterOnline their child was being harassed and blamed for the cancellation of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and that they were concerned for their and their child’s safety. LNP and LancasterOnline stand by the original reporting on this story.”
Meanwhile, Centerville Elementary posted an FAQ about the play’s cancellation to its website in an attempt to clarify matters.
The FAQ contradicts ABC27 News’ original report — and Fox and Breitbart — in several ways. First of all, it says the play was “absolutely not” reassessed due to that last line, “God bless us, every one.” It also states that a religious complaint was not what prompted the play’s cancellation.
“There were no complaints … The decision had nothing to do with a religious concern; rather, the decision was made due to the amount of instructional time that this non-curricular activity had grown to require.” The FAQ also asserts “the decision was not influenced by parents.”
But school principal Tom Kramer did write, in an earlier statement on the website, “Our decision is rooted in the desire to be respectful of the many cultural and religious backgrounds represented by the students attending Centerville Elementary.” And school district spokeswoman Zimmerman also suggested, in the ABC27 interview, that it was parents’ complaints that originally brought the play to the attention of the district.
Speaking to the Exponent, ADL Regional Director Nancy Baron-Baer expressed frustration with the imprecise language employed in coverage of these events.
“The word ‘fled’ conjures up images of refugees from Syria,” she said, referring to LancasterOnline’s original article. In reference to the conflation of the story with the “war on Christmas,” Baron-Baer said, “The word ‘war’ connotes very something specific and dire. Of course [the Jewish family] had concerns. But it’s important for someone to talk about words having meaning.”
Friday, Dec. 23, 2:35 p.m.: This post has been updated to include new information and a quote from Nancy Baron-Baer.