Poster children

A parent-led art class leads to a public dispute over whether Arden Arcade teacher can prevent students from expressing support for black lives

This story has been expanded from its print edition.

A Sacramento elementary school entered its Thanksgiving break engulfed in a free speech controversy over a teacher’s alleged decision to trash student posters supporting black lives.

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California went public with the dispute on Nov. 21, releasing an open letter to San Juan Unified School District Superintendent Kent Kern that drew quick national attention.

The ACLU’s letter concerns what happened inside a classroom at Del Paso Manor Elementary School in September, during a parent-led art class about how “art can manifest in activism.” Black Lives Matter was just one of the examples Magali Kincaid, a volunteer art docent, offered the students as part of her lesson plan, along with immigration, housing and animal rights, pay equity, according to the ACLU letter and an exhibit showing a poster board Kincaid used as part of her lecture. After her lesson, Kincaid had the students make their own posters and told them to focus on a change they would like to see at their school. Four students created Black Lives Matter posters.

The ACLU says the class teacher, David Madden, made these students re-do their posters the following day on the grounds that they were “inappropriate and political.” Madden also allegedly threw away at least one student’s poster and banned Kincaid from the class.

In the ACLU letter, staff attorney Abre’ Conner points out that the U.S. Supreme Court already upheld students’ rights to non-disruptive political speech when it ruled in favor of Iowa students who wore armbands protesting the Vietnam war. Conner also wrote that the California Education Code protects speech unless it is “obscene, libelous, or slanderous,” and that there are “obvious problems with a teacher and principal … taking the positions that the acknowledgment of Black lives is controversial and political in nature.”

The school district was closed this week and Superintendent Kern didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. But in an earlier statement to the media, the district said it was investigating “new information” asserted in the ACLU letter and would respond appropriately. The district claims that Madden didn’t single out the Black Lives Matter posters, but asked other students whose art didn’t focus on a school-specific issue to redo the assignment. The district says the teacher recalled throwing away two students’ posters, but weeks later when the students hadn’t taken them home.

The ACLU letter portrays Madden as more dismissive, claiming he turned down Kincaid’s request to lead a follow-up art class on diversity by saying his future lessons would focus on “a bunch of old white guys.”

Aside from a public apology, the ACLU, which is representing Kincaid and one of the students, has asked for her to be reinstated as art docent and for the school to allow its students to display Black Lives Matter artwork and learn about the movement. The ACLU has also asked for cultural and sensitivity training for school staff, based on input from Kincaid.

“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,” the district statement added. “We sincerely apologize if this experience made any student feel such discomfort.”

An ACLU spokesman told SN&R on Monday that the civil liberties organization hadn’t yet heard directly from the district. (Raheem F. Hosseini)