Banned in Orland

High school principal scrubs a play warning of the dangers of teen suicide

REHEARSED AND READY<br>Four Orland High School students had spent six weeks preparing to present a play written by their teacher, Tim Milhorn (right), when school administrators pulled the plug on it. Left to right, they are: John McAfee, Jenna Rodriguez, Brianna Pebley and Colby Lavey.

Four Orland High School students had spent six weeks preparing to present a play written by their teacher, Tim Milhorn (right), when school administrators pulled the plug on it. Left to right, they are: John McAfee, Jenna Rodriguez, Brianna Pebley and Colby Lavey.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

What causes copycat suicides?
Researchers believe the danger of teen copycat suicides increases when a suicide is heavily covered in the media, the victim is romanticized, details of the death are given, and the influence of mental illness is downplayed. Celebrity suicides are especially dangerous in this regard.

Could a play warning of the dangers of teen suicide actually cause a teen to commit suicide? That’s the question raised by the recent censorship of a high-school play in Orland.

Tim Milhorn found out last Thursday (Oct. 2) that The Tender Yellow Sky, the play he wrote this past summer exploring the causes of teenage suicide and how to prevent it, has been banned from being staged this November at Orland High School.

Milhorn has been at the school for 30 years. He teaches English, theater production and history of drama, and also coaches soccer. When the play was canceled, it had been in production for six weeks.

Milhorn received the final word from new Principal Jeff Scheele—backed by Superintendent Chris von Kleist and Assistant Superintendent Armand Brett of the Orland Unified School District—citing concern over “copycat suicides.”

Scheele is the school’s former vice principal who took over from Dan Raner, who left the post at the end of the 2007-08 school year.

Speaking by phone from his Chico home, the 55-year-old Milhorn expressed dismay at his play’s being canceled. Two plays he wrote prior to The Tender Yellow Sky—one dealing with teen pregnancy, the other with teen alcohol and drug abuse—were both put on at OHS.

Like his previous plays, Milhorn’s current work is “aimed at a teenage audience with a message” that is very clear: Seek professional help if you are feeling depressed, rather than harm yourself or bury yourself in alcohol and drugs.

The Tender Yellow Sky focuses on a present-day, small-town, teenage boy, John Wear, and his close relationships with his best male friend, Alex; his girlfriend, Brianna, and his best friend’s girlfriend. Wear’s relationship with his girlfriend suffers increasingly over the course of the play as he and Alex turn more and more to smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. Toward the end of the play, Brianna receives a phone call that one of the teenage boys has committed suicide.

The act of suicide is not shown on stage.

The play ends with Wear’s former teacher telling the audience that depression is a treatable condition, and that no one needs to harm him- or herself in this day and age.

Milhorn was motivated to write The Tender Yellow Sky because of his familiarity with suicide. A nephew killed himself 10 years ago, and he has lost a best friend and six OHS students over the past 30 years to suicide as well.

While writing the play, Milhorn did extensive research on teen suicide. He followed the media guidelines established by the American Federation for Suicide Prevention, which include not glorifying or romanticizing suicide, not being overly descriptive in the method used, and addressing the act in plain terms—"suicide” or “to die by suicide.” He got the approval of a local mental-health official who read the play.

All of the main characters in The Tender Yellow Sky speak out against suicide, including the victim, who comes back at the end of the play expressing his regret for having ended his life. As Milhorn put it, “It is patently and totally a play against suicide.”

Milhorn pointed out that no copycat suicides occurred after any of the six OHS student suicides during Milhorn’s tenure. “Not one student,” he said, “died by suicide after their deaths.” Additionally, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a play that Milhorn described as “the ultimate glorification of suicide,” is taught every year to OHS ninth-graders. “No students I have ever taught died by suicide after reading the play,” he stressed.

Last spring, Milhorn informed then-Principal Dan Raner of his intention to write the play. Raner advised Milhorn of a new policy requiring plays to be vetted by the principal before being staged. Since Milhorn had had no problem in the past, he saw no reason why his latest play would not be approved.

Work on the play began in mid-August, with Milhorn and his theater class reading through the script four or five times before beginning daily rehearsals.

Students, Milhorn said, were “highly invested” in the play. None of the actors’ parents, he added—"parents from a wide gamut of backgrounds"—had any objections to the play or their children’s participation in it.

Understanding that Scheele, who’d served as vice principal under Raner, was knee-deep in his hectic first days as principal, and feeling fairly confident that his play was not going to be nixed, Milhorn didn’t put the script on Scheele’s desk until mid-September.

“I got the play to the principal probably a little later than I should have, admittedly,” Milhorn acknowledged.

Scheele didn’t read the play for another couple of weeks. Then, on Oct. 2, after discussing it with district officials, Scheele pulled the plug on The Tender Yellow Sky.

Scheele, said Milhorn, “was not as concerned by the subject of suicide as by the many references to drugs and alcohol. But the play is very representative of what students are like.” He said Scheele also was disturbed by the phrase “sex fiend” uttered by one character, and by a female character’s discussion of why males are called “studs” when they are sexually active, while females are referred to as “sluts” for similar behavior.

The play, Milhorn added, contains a lot of humor, and is a “rollercoaster of ups and downs"—ingredients that make for attentive audience viewing.

Milhorn believes that Scheele played it safe in halting The Tender Yellow Sky, but added, “I understand the trepidation of first-year principalship. … He’s not protected by tenure if something did happen. …

Two attempts to reach Scheele for comment—one by telephone and one by e-mail—went unanswered. Brett, the assistant superintendent, contacted the CN&R by phone, explaining, “Jeff’s a brand-new principal. We asked him, when there’s a request from the media, to kick it our way.”

Brett, a former Chico State wrestling coach, stressed that Milhorn is “one of our valued teachers” and that “he wrote the play for all the right reasons,” but went on to say that he wished that Milhorn had come to the administration earlier so that he, Scheele and district officials “could have come up with something acceptable that wouldn’t put students at risk.”

The Tender Yellow Sky is “well-written,” said Brett, but “borders on being therapeutic,” and Brett believes that a teen viewing the play might take it as “giving permission for a teen to commit suicide” or “glorifying the act of suicide.” He said that the administration had “consulted some licensed therapists informally,” who had not read the play but agreed that there was some risk that a depressed teen in the audience might misinterpret the play and try to commit suicide.

Brett, whose wife, Joey, is Orland High’s school psychologist, added that administrators objected to Milhorn’s play because it is somewhat therapeutic. In the administration’s opinion, only licensed therapists have any place dealing with the very serious issues of teen suicide.

“School board curriculum only recommends that they [depressed teens] seek professional help,” Brett reiterated. “We felt that approving this play wasn’t sending that message.”

When asked why plays such as Romeo and Juliet are approved to be taught at OHS, Brett responded that the administration follows “civil standards that all school boards go by.”

Milhorn broke the news to his theater class on Monday (Oct. 6). He described students as being incredulous, indignant and angry. The students, he said, “feel the administration is disrespecting them and treating them, and all the student body, like little children.”

Now that The Tender Yellow Sky has been shelved, Milhorn and his students are scrambling to choose a play to put on in November or December that meets the approval of their new principal and are “safe and sound for Orland.”

As for whether he will try to persuade Orland school officials to reconsider their position on The Tender Yellow Sky, Milhorn said emphatically: “I will not put this play on through the school district.” Rather, he hopes for support from one of the theater companies in the less-conservative, theater-friendly environment of Chico.