CROSS RIVER, New York – A public high school has suspended three girls who disobeyed officials by saying the word "vagina" during a reading from a well-known feminist play.
The students, Megan Reback, Elan Stahl and Hannah Levinson, included the word during their reading of "The Vagina Monologues" because, "It wasn't crude and it wasn't inappropriate and it was very real and very pure," Reback said.
Their defiant stand is being applauded by the play's author, who said Tuesday that the school should be celebrating, rather than punishing, the three juniors.
"Don't we want our children to resist authority when it's not appropriate and wise?" said Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues."
The excerpt from "Monologues" was read Friday night, among various readings at an event sponsored by the literary magazine at John Jay High School in Cross River, a New York City suburb. Among the other readings was a student's original work and the football coach quoting Shakespeare.
The girls took turns reading the excerpt until they came to the word, then said it together.
"My short skirt is a liberation flag in the women's army," they read. "I declare these streets, any streets, my vagina's country."
The play, presented as various women's thoughts about sexual subjects, has become a phenomenon since its Off-Broadway opening in 1996. All-star readings are common, and on "V-Day" each year — usually Feb. 14— it is often performed by volunteers and college students to battle violence against women.
The suspension outraged some parents, who circulated an e-mail calling the punishment a "blatant attempt at censorship."
But Principal Richard Leprine said Tuesday that the girls were punished because they disobeyed orders, not because of what they said.
The event was open to the community, including children, and the word was not appropriate, Leprine said in a statement. He said the girls had been told when they auditioned that they could not use the word.
The school "recognizes and respects student freedom of expression," Leprine said. "That right, however, is not unfettered."
"When a student is told by faculty members not to present specified material because of the composition of the audience and they agree to do so, it is expected that the commitment will be honored and the directive will be followed," he said. "When a student chooses not to follow the directive, consequences follow."
Bob Lichtenfeld, superintendent of the Katonah-Lewisboro school district, which includes John Jay, said that had the teens, who are in their third year of high school, wanted to perform the play, they would probably not have encountered opposition.
"As long as the intended audience knows what to expect, we don't have a problem with it."
Reback told The Journal News, "I think almost everyone can agree it's important to uphold the integrity of literature and not change or alter it." Ensler said the girls were right for "standing up for art and against censorship."
"The school's position is absurd, a throwback to the Dark Ages," she said. "So what, if children were to hear the word? Would that be terrible? We're not talking about plutonium here, or acid rain, a word that destroys lives. It's a body part!"
"Monologue" performances occasionally provoke controversy.
Conservative Catholics criticized the University of Notre Dame's decision to allow a performance on campus last April. This year, student planners could not get an academic sponsor.