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N.J. High School To Stage 'Ragtime,' Complete With Offensive Words, As Teachable Moment

CHERRY HILL, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- A New Jersey school district has given the green light to Cherry Hill High School East to perform the musical "Ragtime" – even though the script contains racial and ethnic slurs.

As CBS2's Brian Conybeare reported, some are fine with the plan -- but others are definitely not.

The N-word looms large in the dialogue of "Ragtime," the Tony Award-winning musical about race and class divisions in early 20th century New York.

But that word, and slurs against the Jewish community, are sparking controversy and conversation at Cherry Hill High School East in Camden County, New Jersey.

"We don't need to be refreshed on what racism is by the unfettered use of this word, and like phrases, in a high school play," said Carey Savage, vice president of the Camden County East NAACP.

"Let these kids say these words that were unfortunately the norm, and let them moments later walk off that stage to realize how lucky they are to be where they are, and to be able to accomplish things these characters – and real-life people of this time – only dreamed of," said Aliya Bowles, an actress and Cherry Hill High School East alumna.

During an impassioned public meeting last week, the school district reversed its decision to remove the offensive words from the spring musical performance, after students delivered a petition that got nearly 2,000 signatures online.

"There's language included in the show that's offensive; that's vile," said Cherry Hill Schools Supt. Joseph Meloche.

Meloche said the musical's license holder would not allow any changes to the script, so instead of cancelling the production, he decided to turn the controversy into a teachable moment about the nation's difficult racial past.

"It's become abundantly clear to us that this discussion has to take place, and if we can do it within the school and provide an opportunity for our kids and a safe and secure environment to learn and have that discussion, then it is our responsibility to do that," Meloche said.

Students have their own opinions.

"In Cherry Hill East there's like, a lot of racism, and like, the teachers don't want to talk about it," one student said.

"I don't think it's right, like, they shouldn't do that -- especially because we have African-Americans and Jewish people at our school," another said.

"They did talk like that back then, but like I really don't think it matters," a third said.

The show, with the offensive words included, will open at the high school on March 10.

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