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Production company apologizes for booting boy from show

April 28, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN

A theater production company has apologized to the family of a boy with a developmental disability who was escorted out of a Maryland Theatre children's show April 4 because he was squealing.

Becky Gilmer of Berkeley County, W.Va., told the Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday that her son Blane, 11, can communicate through sounds, but not words, and was expressing his joy for the show. Then, he was asked to leave.

As part of its apology, the production company, Theatreworks USA of New York City, has offered to perform a free show next year at the middle school Blane will attend. It also promised 270 free show tickets for students at his current intermediate school.

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After Becky Gilmer criticized The Maryland Theatre on Tuesday, city council members and Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II apologized on behalf of the city.

On Wednesday, Brian Sullivan, The Maryland Theatre's executive director, said a theater employee asked a chaperone to escort Blane out only because that seemed to be Theatreworks' policy on inappropriate behavior.

The policy, sent to schools ahead of time, prohibits talking, running, shouting and whistling during the show.

"Ushers may ask chaperones to remove disruptive children," the policy states.

No one from the school alerted the theater ahead of time about Blane's noises, Sullivan said.

Ken Arthur, the managing director of Theatreworks USA, noted that the policy says "may" not "will."

"You rely on the chaperones or teachers to use their judgment" about sending children on field trips, he said.

Arthur said he used a wheelchair as a child growing up in Indiana.

"It's really important that we apologize," he said.

In an interview Thursday, Becky Gilmer said Blane has a "pervasive development disability" that keeps him from talking. He squeals when he's happy.

He also has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair. She said the theater was told that children with disabilities would be in the audience.

Blane, a fifth-grader at Orchard View Intermediate School in Berkeley County, was among hundreds of students at the theater to see a play called "Gold Rush!"

When Blane started making loud noises a few minutes into the show, a chaperone tried to quiet him, said Arthur, who was not there but received a written account from someone who was.

The report says a child was shrieking loudly. A chaperone escorted the boy from the front row to the back of the theater, where he "continued squealing at top volume," the report says.

The boy then was led to the lobby, where someone suggested he watch the rest of the show from behind glass doors, the report says.

Berkeley County Public Schools spokeswoman Jaimee Borger said the boy was removed because he was "clapping" during the show.

Orchard View Intermediate School Principal Joyce Chapman said she couldn't comment.

Reading from a letter, Becky Gilmer told the city council, "Blane is unable to communicate his wants, needs, pleasure or sorrows by the same means as most people. He can, however, express his joy by smiling, laughing, clapping and squealing."

She said she wants a public apology.

Also reading from a letter, Blane's brother, Jacob, 13, said, "It makes me angry for people to treat him this way, for this is the way God made him."

"We're deeply sorry that Blane was treated this way," Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer said.

"It was an injustice to this child and should have never taken place," Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said, noting that the city partially funds the theater.

"This has touched my heart," said Councilwoman Alesia D. Parson-McBean, adding that she had a mentally retarded brother.

Referring to the theater, Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire questioned a proposal to increase funding from $5,000 to $15,000 "for an agency that would behave in this manner."

Sullivan said Wednesday that city officials seemed to back criticism of the theater without finding out the full story.

On Thursday, he said he talked with a council member about the incident.

The theater will use the Americans With Disabilities Act to help craft a new policy, he said.

Sullivan said he's sorry the incident happened, but the theater simply was trying to carry out the terms of Theatreworks USA's contract and let the rest of the audience hear the show.

But Becky Gilmer said noise among fifth-graders should be expected.

"Blane wasn't sitting in the middle of a royal wedding," she said.

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