A teacher at Del Paso Manor Elementary School in Sacramento, California, decided to give sixth-graders a lesson on white supremacy as he threw away four student art projects because of their “political nature.”
KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, originally reported that David Madden trashed student projects that illustrated the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement after they were inspired by a parent who was invited to the class to give a presentation on topics that the students cared about. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Magli Kincaid gave a lesson on how art can manifest in activism on Sept. 16. After drawing inspiration from Kincaid’s lesson, four students created posters that were ultimately tossed out by Madden.
Subsequently, students and parents expressed their concerns about the matter to the principal of the school and proceeded to seek counsel and support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California after they were reportedly confronted by Madden for reporting their trepidations. The lesson given by Kincaid was not her first at the school and she is hoping that it is not her last.
In a letter written to Kent Kern, Superintendent of the San Juan Unified School District, Abre’ Conner, Staff Attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, made it clear that the disposal of the students’ art posters violates their first amendment rights. And, that having received the directive to recreate their projects during class was unnecessary punishment.
The ACLU Stepped In When Leadership Wouldn’t
“Black Lives Matter posters and conversations are protected speech even if the principal and Mr. Madden believe that they are ‘political.’ Education Code § 48907 gives students the right to ‘exercise freedom of speech and of the press including, but not limited to, the use of bulletin boards, the distribution of printed materials or petitions, the wearing of buttons, badges, and other insignia.’ Cal. Ed. Code § 48907(a) (emphasis added). This speech must not be “obscene, libelous, or slanderous.” Cal. Ed. Code § 48907(a). First, Black Lives Matter posters are protected speech because they communicate a student’s expression of their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs regarding the support of Black lives. Additionally, the California Legislature squarely contemplated speech such as Black Lives Matter posters to ensure speech, like the type meant to uplift black students and other marginalized groups, was protected under the California Education Code. The District has not and cannot make a serious argument that Black Lives Matter speech is obscene, libelous, or slanderous. Indeed, this type of speech meant to create a more inclusive campus is quite the opposite.”
Conner went on to explain censorship, California state laws, and what inclusion actually means.
“There are obvious problems with a teacher and principal who currently have black students in their classroom and school taking the positions that the acknowledgment of Black Lives is controversial and political in nature. Students have a legal right to support their classmates and others within the black community through protected speech by creating Black Lives Matter posters. Indeed, even if the teacher believes that supporting Black Lives Matter is somehow political, the “silencing of a political message because of disagreement with that message, is particularly offensive.” Gillman ex rel. Gillman v. School Bd. for Holmes County, Fla., 567 F.Supp.2d 1359, 1376 (N.D. Fla. Jul. 24, 2008).”
The ACLU made the following demands:
- The District to issue a public apology
- To allow parents to continue volunteering in the classroom
- To hang the Black Lives Matter posters up during the Spring Art Night (if the students want to remake them) that has a Black Lives Matter theme, in addition to the breezeway where the other artwork is hung at Del Paso Manor Elementary
- Curriculum and events that include Black Lives Matter
- A cultural and sensitivity training for staff that is based on our clients’ input and (6) parent engagement training.
Since the incident, the San Juan Unified School District has issued the following statement on Nov. 21:
On Thursday, we received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that asserted students in one of Del Paso Manor’s sixth-grade classes had been censored because of the content of their artwork related to Black Lives Matter. We want all of our families to know that censoring student work because of its content would not be acceptable.
Del Paso Manor and San Juan Unified are committed to developing an equitable environment in all of our classrooms where students feel comfortable sharing their voice. Some of the assertions made in the letter from the ACLU are new information to the district and we will be investigating to determine their validity.
Art docent volunteers are welcomed into our classrooms to deliver district developed lessons aligned to grade-level standards. In this case, the parent volunteer was allowed to provide a lesson that was not prepared by the district’s art program and without having been trained. That should have not occurred and unfortunately led to disagreement between the parent and the classroom teacher on the assignment’s final outcome.
As stated in the letter from the ACLU, the teacher’s understanding of the resulting assignment was for students to produce artwork related to a change they wanted to see within the school itself. Students whose artwork focused on large social issues, which varied in topic, and was not directly tied to the school, were asked by the teacher to complete another poster the next day.
All artwork that met the assignment’s purpose was displayed in the classroom.
It is inconsistent with our values and never our intent or desire for any student to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome to discuss issues that are important to them. We sincerely apologize if this experience made any student feel such discomfort. We are open and committed to continuing our work with students, staff, community partners and others to ensure that our school communities embrace a diversity of thoughts and experiences.
Talk about life lessons.