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Earlier this year, a high school history class in Silver City, N.M., was scheduled to watch a military documentary that had been recorded from TV. Instead, what they saw sent shockwaves through a district. A substitute teacher rewound the VHS tape a bit too far, and unwittingly played three or four seconds of hardcore pornography that hadn't been erased from the tape. Parents were justifiably outraged, and the full-time instructor responsible for bringing in the tape was placed on administrative leave. A father told reporters, "This one incident has really tarnished [the school's reputation]. This makes me wonder what else is going on that we don't know about."

He's not the only parent unaware of what's being viewed in his child's classroom.

A few thousand miles away in Atlanta, Ga., another teacher was forced to resign after showing the R-rated biopic Elizabeth to an English class without parental consent. The film contains nudity, several sex scenes and graphic violence. The teacher's defense: "I didn't think about it being R-rated. It's such a good movie."

Such lapses in judgment often cost educators their jobs, and children their innocence. That includes younger children. "Imagine my surprise when I found out that my 4-year-old son had been shown Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame at his Christian preschool," said one mother, primarily concerned about the film's grim themes, violence and a villain driven by lust. "I never would have known except that he mentioned it casually on the drive home. In true fashion, I did a 180-degree turn back to the school to express my anger and frustration over this lack of discernment."

Did she make a scene, yelling at the staff and blaming everyone but the janitor for corrupting her child's heart? Fortunately, no. Rather, this passionate mom used the situation to everyone's long-term benefit. She told Plugged In, "Thankfully, the school administration was equally shocked, and from that encounter, we have worked together to develop a media policy, as well as an approved video list for the preschool. The experience underscored for me the never-ending need for vigilance—even at Christian schools."

Teachable Moments, Sensible Limits
We live in the age of overstimulation. Immersive video games. YouTube. Facebook. On-demand video. Teachers are desperate to keep up with students' shrinking attention spans. And with media clips only a few mouse clicks away, it's tempting to over-rely on them—or rely on the wrong ones—in a sincere attempt to connect with kids. So how can parents keep abreast of, or even tactfully influence, what's being shown in class?

Sanity can prevail when parents partner with educators in a respectful manner. For example, a board member and a concerned parent successfully teamed up to lobby their Colorado school district to say "no" to R-rated films in class. Anna Bartha told us, "An R rating states that, because of a certain level of sex, violence or language, no one under 17 can be admitted without a parent or guardian. For teachers to step into that role for dozens of students from diverse family backgrounds is wrong, even if their intentions are good." The new policy also requires parental consent in order for high schoolers to be exposed to PG-13 movies or isolated clips from R-rated films.

Here are a few steps parents can take in an effort to work alongside teachers and administrators more effectively:

1. See if your child's school has a video viewing policy, and if so what that entails. They vary greatly from district to district, state to state. Some schools, for instance, require any programming with more than a G rating be screened ahead of time.

2. Find out ahead of time what specific steps you should take if you object to a video scheduled to be shown to your child. You'll also want to know what alternative activities or assignments are available should you opt out.

3. Often, instructional videos shown in class aren't announced to parents ahead of time. Be proactive. Speak with teachers about their lesson plans involving videos. It never hurts to e-mail the instructor, respectfully asking to be forewarned of any videos your child will view. The teacher's response to that request could serve you well should a dispute occur later.

4. Even when teachers don't use media in class, students still may have access to it. Ask what technology is available at the school, who monitors it and what kind of Internet filter they use.

5. Invite your school to have a Media Literacy Week that raises awareness of the impact of media on our lives. Lessons can explore specific media, technology and the dangers of certain content, all in an age-appropriate manner. Plugged In's weekly Culture Clips report often provides statistics, authoritative quotes and other evidence to help concerned adults state their case for discernment.

6. Encourage teachers to use as a resource. Memory might tell them that a certain movie makes a powerful point and spice up a lesson plan. But being reminded of its sexuality, violence or profanity could help them see it more objectively.

7. Pray for your interactions with school officials, as well as for your child. Pray that your attitude is gracious in the face of opposition. Pray for teachers, administrators and, most of all, young people who need protection and discernment.

Now is the perfect time to raise this important issue, which may be a blind spot for busy educators who care deeply about children. Most of the initial back-to-school chaos has passed, yet it's still early enough to gather information and begin a conversation that will reap benefits for the new school year. As Anna Bartha concluded, "It wasn't easy, but it was worth it."

Published October 2010