Parents divided over swastikas’ removal from ‘Sound of Music’ at California elementary school
When Rolling Hills Elementary sixth-graders perform “The Sound of Music” this week, Nazi imagery will be omitted from the play.
The decision to amend parts of the iconic musical set in 1938 Austria, Fullerton School District officials said, was because “the juxtaposition of powerful and destructive symbols with innocent children has the potential not only to spark controversy but also to attract individuals or groups with ill intent.”
After a Rolling Hills parent expressed their concern about having their sixth grader wear a swastika in the musical, the FSD board decided to remove any Nazi images as well as the “Heil Hitler” salute from the performance, said Superintendent Bob Pletka. Swastikas are ancient symbols appropriated by Nazis that continue to represent hatred of Jews.
“This was all about a safety issue,” Pletka said. “That is why we responded.”
The move has garnered mixed reactions. While some parents and staff members support the decision, others worry that it’s censorship.
“The Sound of Music” follows the von Trapp family who fled the Nazi regime in Austria. The fictionalized musical is based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.”
“I feel that the insidious creep of censorship has reached Fullerton, and if we don’t bring this ridiculous book burning to light, the students and the community will suffer,” said Gabrielle Hufferd, a parent of a child in the school district. “The more we remove, gloss over and sugar coat the hard truths of history, the more apt we are to turn away when humanity calls for us to do the right thing.”
During a May 16 school board meeting, one parent said her child has come home repeating offensive language and expressions that stemmed from the musical and had been repeated on the playground.
But another parent said she trusted the teachers to have “necessary conversations with the students and have teachable moments.”
A concern, Pletka said, is that students could be photographed with a swastika on their arms or the Nazi flag behind them, and those images could be shared on social media without context.
“There is a real possibility that a kid could be mocked. And that is what I am most worried about,” he said.
And then there’s the potential that the imagery could “bring attention to the wrong group of people,” said Pletka. “Neo-Nazis are alive and well. If we have images of kids in swastikas, we might draw a group of people we do not want.”
Antisemitic incidents reached a record high in the Orange County and Long Beach regions last year, per data collected by the Anti-Defamation League. In its report, there were 3,697 antisemitic incidents recorded in the U.S., a 36% increase from 2021. California had the second-highest number of incidents reported, 518, a 41% increase from 2021.
Jody Dyer, a teacher and director of Rolling Hills’ “The Sound of Music” production, said she is “beyond disappointed that the controversy surrounding our play has overshadowed the incredible work these amazingly resilient, brave and brilliant young people have done to bring this beautiful story to life.”
“I believe in preserving art and history. I commend the sixth-grade students for all they have endured this year,” Dyer said. “I am certain the lessons they have learned through all the adversity they’ve faced this year (will) inspire the students to become strong, community-minded, global citizens, capable of changing the world. I am immensely proud of them.”
In addition to changing the imagery, FSD has also prohibited the performance from being shown to first through third graders during school hours. Fourth and fifth graders, however, are allowed to attend the performance with parental permission.
The main performance was slated for Wednesday evening, May 24, with another scheduled for Thursday morning. For shows not held during school hours, it will be up to parents to decide if their children, regardless of age, can attend.
For any future production of any play or musical, schools will need to notify the district ahead of time, Pletka said. FSD schools can also still put on productions of “The Sound of Music” as long as they adhere to the restrictions of no swastikas or “Heil Hitler” salutes, he said.