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California teacher on leave after ‘Angels in America’ controversy hopes to return to class

California teacher on leave after ‘Angels in America’ controversy hopes to return to class

If there’s going to be drama, Greg Bailey prefers it happen inside his classroom.

Instead, the 46-year-old Temecula Valley High School drama teacher is unwillingly at the center of a culture-war drama, vilified as a groomer and unable to teach his life’s passion while in investigatory limbo.

In May, Temecula resident Tracy Nolasco complained that her 15-year-old daughter became distressed after being forced to read the play “Angels in America” in Bailey’s class.

Bailey, a Menifee resident and Temecula Valley Unified School District employee since 2018, has been on paid leave ever since.

Greg Bailey, a Temecula Valley High School drama teacher, directs a rehearsal of “Hamlet” at Baily Winery & Vineyard in Temecula Valley Wine Country on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. He has been on paid leave since May after a parent complained about her daughter reading the play “Angels in America” in Bailey’s class. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Greg Bailey works with actors during a rehearsal of “Hamlet” at Baily Winery & Vineyard on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. Bailey, who has taught at Temecula Valley High School since 2018, said he never forced students to read the sexually explicit play “Angels in America.” (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Greg Bailey directs a “Hamlet” rehearsal at Baily Winery & Vineyard on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Greg Bailey laughs as he sees a prop flashlight during a rehearsal of “Hamlet” at Baily Winery & Vineyard on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Greg Bailey, second from left, starts a rehearsal of “Hamlet” with an all-cast warm-up dance at Baily Winery & Vineyard on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Greg Bailey, second from left, joins the cast of “Hamlet” in a warm-up dance at Baily Winery & Vineyard on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Greg Bailey speaks to actors during a rehearsal of “Hamlet” at Baily Winery & Vineyard on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Greg Bailey prepares to start a rehearsal of “Hamlet” — a play he’s directing — as actors work behind him at Baily Winery & Vineyard in Temecula Valley Wine Country on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023. Since May, Bailey has been on leave from his job as a drama teacher at Temecula Valley High School after a parent complained about her daughter reading the sexually explicit play “Angels in America” for his class. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

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First performed in 1991, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner that examines AIDS and homosexuality in the 1980s. The play, which was made into an HBO miniseries, contains graphic sex scenes, profanity and adult themes.

In his first public comments since going on leave, Bailey said he never forced anyone to read “Angels in America,” one of 10 plays students can read for an end-of-year assignment on Pulitzer-winning American playwrights.

Bailey said he didn’t learn of Nolasco’s misgivings until a month after the assignment and that he warns students in advance about the play’s explicit content. Students can read another play if “Angels in America” is too upsetting, he added.

“On the very first days of class, I let (students) know that there is never a time that they should feel uncomfortable in my room,” said Bailey, who teaches freshmen through seniors and this summer is directing a production of “Hamlet” in Temecula Valley Wine Country.

If a parent complains, “I am very, very reasonable,” Bailey said. “Parents do have the right to have their students not read something if they don’t want them to.”

RELATED: Gov. Gavin Newsom says state will provide social studies textbooks to Temecula if school board won’t

Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” were among the other plays students could read for the American playwrights assignment, Bailey said.

Bailey said he tells students “Angels in America” is “about the homosexual experience in the 80s.”

“I tell them it’s about the AIDS epidemic,” Bailey said. “I tell them that there is adult language in it. I tell them there are sexual situations in it. I also tell them that it is an epic piece of theater, that it won the Pulitzer Prize.”

Bailey said he makes students take notes on his lectures about the plays and hand their notes in “to prove that they were listening when I told them what the plays were about.”

Nolasco’s daughter was among those students, he said.

But in a phone interview, Nolasco insisted Bailey “did not prepare (students) for what exactly was going to be read.”

“My problem with ‘Angels in America’ and with Mr. Bailey is the fact that that (play) was offered as a choice,” she said. “It was hidden in the (school) library for over 20 years. And he took it upon himself to make copies and to distribute it to my daughter.”

Bailey called the play “a master work of theater.”

“It is imaginative and poetic and beautiful,” he said. “It speaks about a time in America and about a part of the American experience that is important, especially for some young people who are looking for some kind of — any kind of — acceptance of who they are.”

RELATED: Curriculum that mentions SF gay rights leader Harvey Milk blocked by Southern California school board

He added: “I keep that play because I have had numerous students who read it and it has changed their life … I’m not talking about LGBTQ+ students. I’m talking about students who are expanding their worldview or gaining empathy by thinking about other people’s experiences.”

Bailey said he has “strict content standards” in his classroom that forbid profanity and hate speech, even when students are acting and in character.

Nolasco said she tried to email Bailey in April “days after the assignment” to ask that her daughter be assigned another play. The school district’s email system blocked the email after flagging it as inappropriate content, she said.

“(My daughter) went to discuss stuff with him and she was getting upset and he was like, ‘Well, if you’re gonna be all sensitive about it, then just forget it,’” Nolasco said.

Bailey replied: “There was never any complaint made to me about the content by the student. If concerns would have been raised, I would have been more than happy to speak to Ms. Nolasco at any time to address her concerns.”

After not hearing from Bailey, Nolasco said she tried calling and emailing the teacher and school administrators — at one point, she hand delivered a printed email to the principal — but never heard back.

Eventually, Nolasco spoke at the school board’s May 16 meeting about her concerns with the play.

Board President Joseph Komrosky agreed with her, saying at the meeting: “Once that kind of concept enters the child’s mind, the sexualization, it’s over. It’s in there.”

The board’s conservative members are considering changes to district policy intended to keep obscene and pornographic material away from children — a move critics fear could lead to censorship.

Bailey said he learned of Nolasco’s concerns May 12, when he received a printed copy of one of her emails.

The day after Nolasco addressed the school board, Bailey said he was removed from the classroom in the middle of taking attendance. He said Riverside County sheriff’s investigators visited his home and spoke with him for about 45 minutes, but no charges were filed.

412 Church Temecula Valley Pastor Tim Thompson, a leader in the effort to elect and defend Temecula’s conservative school board majority, called for Bailey’s firing and accused him of being a “groomer” and of “perverted behavior.”

Thompson “has never met me,” Bailey said. “He has never attended my class. He has never heard me teach … He knows nothing about my life. He made judgment calls about who I am based on some words in a play that I allow students to read if they choose to.”

The weeks since going on leave have been “a mixture of sadness and anger,” said Bailey, adding that the fallout “basically ruined the last month of my daughter’s senior year.”

While upset “that so many people in the community would jump on this bandwagon of calling me names and having this hate for me … the response from people who do know me, who have seen me teach, who know what I do and know what my program is about has been really heartening,” he said.

“It has been the thing that has kept me strong … I will be stronger at the end of this no matter what. But every day is a challenge.”

Bailey’s supporters, including his students and parents, held a June 2 rally for him near Temecula Valley High School.

Temecula Valley High School students from left, Geneva Davisson, 16; Marlee Adamo, 15; and Katie Landrum, 16; cheer Friday, June 2, 2023, as drivers honk in support of the rally for drama teacher Greg Bailey after he was put on leave from Temecula Valley High. (File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) 

Since taking office in December, the three conservative members of the five-member school board — Komrosky, Danny Gonzalez and Jen Wiersma — have made national headlines for banning the teaching of so-called critical race theory and rejecting an elementary social studies curriculum that referenced LGBTQ civil rights leader Harvey Milk.

“I think that the board makeup right now is dangerous,” Bailey said. “The ultimate negative here is that (they’re) dismantling the school district in Temecula by making it untenable for quality teachers to want to work there.”

Komrosky and Gonzalez did not respond to requests for comment. Wiersma declined to comment.

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Building a back-to-school routine

Bailey said he was ordered to report to the district office Thursday and he won’t be back in the classroom when the new school year begins Monday, Aug. 14. He added there’s no specific timetable for him to return to class, although there could be an Aug. 21 meeting to discuss the results of the investigation.

Bailey said he’s not worried about being punished.

“By keeping me out of my classroom, as the school year starts, they are punishing the students of TVHS drama.”

“We’re supposed to be having auditions for the improv team. We have a cabaret show coming up,” he said. “We were supposed to be doing Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ in the fall and all of that is just on pause and there’s no way of knowing when that will be activated.”

District spokesperson Jimmy Evans declined via email to respond to Bailey, calling the matter an “ongoing personnel item.”

Nolasco said Bailey “needs to apologize and admit that that was a lapse in judgment. And then you should maybe be allowed to come back.”

“You’ve got to admit when you make a mistake,” she said. “You can’t just hide it under the guise of ‘Well, it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and I gave them an option’ … You’ve got to realize that wasn’t a good option for a 14 or 15 year old.”

Nolasco added: “I never wanted anything bad. I just wanted someone to acknowledge that I’m a parent and I have rights. I was never out for blood.”

Bailey, who said he has “every intention” of teaching in the Temecula school district this year, said he “didn’t want to be part of the politics of the valley.”

“I got dragged into this unwillingly and all I’ve ever wanted is to teach drama and to pass on this message to my students,” he said.