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A role-playing exercise at a Vancouver school has been put on hold after parents expressed concerns over the process, which involved arbitrary discipline and students being divided into factions.

"We need to communicate more effectively with parents so they understand the process," Rosa Fazio, principal at Norma Rose Point School, said Sunday in an e-mail.

"In hindsight, it would have been better to wait to begin the process drama until later in the school year when there had been more chance to develop relationships with new families and provide more information. That's what will happen now while we focus on other means of inquiry-based learning."

The role-playing exercise, which was described in a story in Friday's Globe and Mail, began last week at the school, a combined elementary-middle school from kindergarten to Grade 8, that opened in 2014 on Vancouver's west side.

According to a letter sent to parents and obtained by The Globe, some students in Grades 7 and 8 were assigned to a "process drama," in which students were given a number, called "followers" and assigned to a faction.

Teachers, meanwhile, were to represent the Establishment, a controlling body that "arbitrarily demotes/promotes within the factions."

The purpose of the unit, according to the letter, was to make school meaningful for students by "putting education on trial," a process that would involve "a variety of atrocities and crimes against education in an effort to empower student voice and encourage questioning."

Parents whose children were among those selected for the process drama or who had friends in the group said it involved teachers saying, "shame, shame, shame" to students as well as what one student described as a "box of shame" – a tape-marked area where students were to be sent as punishment.

In a statement on the Norma Rose Point School website, Ms. Fazio acknowledged some parents expressed concerns about the program. But the initiative also garnered accolades, she said, adding parents should contact teachers about any concerns.

"We welcome the opportunity to engage in dialogue. We thank parents who have contacted the teachers with both accolades and concern. Sometimes, our way of doing needs to be explained better," she said.

As academic research, the process drama would not have passed muster because the subjects involved did not give their consent, said Carla Hudson Kam, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Language Acquisition at the University of British Columbia.

But even if it is not research – because no data is being gathered – that doesn't mean it should go ahead, she said.

"Anyone who has taken introductory psychology should have seen red flags in the procedures they were intending to use," Dr. Hudson Kam said.

"Randomly giving out punishments and rewards – we know that can be very harmful," she said. "When you can't predict outcomes on the basis of your behaviour, it can cause a lot of psychological distress."

In an e-mail, one parent said her child, who was in the process drama group, was distraught after her day at school and pleaded to be taken out of the program.