A Sacramento, California school district is facing backlash amid allegations it discriminated against students who did a class project expressing support for Black Lives Matter.
In a letter, the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Northern California accuses the San Juan Unified School District of violating students’ First Amendment rights by censoring the youths, as well as retaliating against a parent volunteer.
“The point of the lesson was to create a more inclusive school culture that affirmed the dignity and value of every student,” said Abre’ Conner, staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “By censoring and punishing the students, the school violated their constitutional free speech rights, [and] sent the damaging message that supporting Black lives is not welcomed in their classrooms.”
The incident unfolded at Del Paso Manor Elementary School, which invites parent volunteers to help teach lessons as part of its Art Docent program. Parent Magali Kincaid regularly volunteers at the school and used the Sept. 16 lesson to encourage the students to create art about a cause they cared about, according to the organization.
Her lesson focused on “art manifesting in activism,” prompting students to create posters on a range of issues including immigrant rights, pay equity and Black Lives Matter. Four pupils who made posters expressing support for the social justice movement were allegedly “singled out” by sixth-grade teacher David Madden, who trashed the projects and ordered them to redo their posters in class.
Grace Schneider, whose 11-year-old is a student at Del Paso Manor, heard about the incident and said it made her very concerned.
“My child is half African-American-Filipino, so to me that would be a very disturbing thing,” she told local station KCRA.
Her son, Ray, said Madden only threw some of the projects away “but not all of them.” He said part of the assignment was “to make big posters about school and saying what’s good about it and what’s bad about it.”
Kincaid’s lesson, which school district officials said wasn’t prepared by the district’s art program, yet was somehow allowed to be taught without her being trained, seemingly angered Madden. When Ms. Kincaid asked if she could provide another lesson relevant to future class lessons on diversity, Madden responded that her content might not fit because his lessons were largely about “a bunch of white guys,” according to the ACLU’s complaint.
Madden reportedly went on to question the need to discuss Black Lives Matter at school, calling the students’ posters “inappropriate and political.”
“[The teacher] pressed our parent to say why she felt Black Lives Matter was an appropriate topic to be discussed at school, and also to explain how Black Lives Matter was something that they should be talking about when there’s no shootings that happened at the school,” the letter states.
The ACLU says Kincaid was ultimately banned from teaching any further class lessons and the students “publicly shamed” for their artwork.
San Juan Unified School District officials addressed the controversy in a lengthy statement this week.
“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,” it reads, in part. “We sincerely apologize if this experience made any student feel such discomfort. Censoring a student’s assigned work because of its content wouldn’t be acceptable.”
The district, where a majority of students are English language learners, said it is “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.”
To help “remedy the harm” caused by the incident, the ACLU is asking the district for the following:
- A public apology
- To reinstate Ms. Kincaid’s volunteer privileges
- Culture and sensitivity training for staff members
- To hang any new BLM posters in the breezeway alongside other student artwork on display
- Incorporate BLM into the curriculum and school events
- Engagement training for parents.