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Artwork sparks controversy at school

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By Machaela Ballard

 A North Oldham High School art assignment was taken down after inspiring thousands of post-shares on Facebook and controversial discussions of race, police relations and assignment appropriateness. 

 

But the painting, which simultaneously depicted one student’s opinion of racial injustice today and in the 1930s, was not taken down because of the attention, both negative and positive it received – the art was removed because the teaching unit was over, said Tracy Green, director of communications and development for Oldham County Schools.

“As far as we know, there was no disruption in the classroom. We haven’t received any discussion from the school that there was any sort of disruption in the classroom,” Green said. “The classroom was isolated from what was happening outside.”

What occurred outside of the school began with a Facebook post Jan. 22, written by a man whose daughter was in an honors English course currently studying the book “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. 

“My daughter is not unlike other children of first responders. She fears for my safety every day, and believes me to be a man of honesty and courage…” a portion of the post stated. 

“What this propaganda creates are future cop haters, which endanger me, and 800,000 other courageous protectors. We speak of tolerance, we speak of changing hostile environments, we speak of prejudice, and we speak of racial relations, yet, when it comes to hostility toward police, their families, and profiling them through bigotry we are expected to tolerate it. I will not, nor will my child.”

The post bloomed from a few hundred shares on social media into shares by the thousands, and the district began to take on calls from across the country, Green said. 

“The parent showed the impact that social media can have,” Green said. “I have talked to people in Louisiana. Many aren’t in the state or from Oldham County.”

Although the parent’s post said the painting created a “hostile learning environment” and requested its removal, the district maintained that the assignment was appropriate. 

But it was not up to the district to remove the artwork, Green said, adding that the district determined “the teacher did not do anything in any way incorrect.”

Ultimately, the decision to remove the work before the unit was over was left to the school’s site-base council, because Kentucky statutes grant it the power to “determine which textbooks, instructional materials and student support services shall be provided in the school.” 

Students had a choice of several artistic options to depict their reading material including 3-D diagrams of the book’s focal city, Maycomb, and dramatic interpretations and monologues. An artist’s statement accompanying their assignment and describing each artistic choice was required.

The controversial artwork was done by a student who was in the class a year prior, who had chosen the following prompt: “Develop a literal or abstract representation of how racial injustice in America has changed over time.”

The painting depicts a Confederate flag below a white-hooded man pointing a gun at a black man kneeling on the ground. The images are abreast a black child, kneeling beneath the barrel of a police officer’s gun, atop an American flag.

“Part of what has been lost is we don’t have that student’s artist statement,” Green noted. “One of the important things to realize is this is one student’s opinion. For them to take on this topic is a fairly logical place for them to have gone.”

The parent again posted Friday, Feb. 26 that he had spoken with the North Oldham High School principal and since made amends, adding that he would not remove his daughter from her school’s classroom or the district. 

“I apologized for the roar that came from certain unsavory individuals in the social sphere,” the parent wrote. “I wanted to be heard and had no idea it would expand the way it did. I want those who supported the mission to know that I still believe the Oldham County School District to be among the best in the country… We are human, we make mistakes, and when we do, we do our best to make them right.”

In the wake of Harper Lee’s recent death, Green said she had received an anonymous email stating that the author would have been proud of the dialogue created by her book.

“The thing about social injustice is that it is a controversial topic. It makes people upset,” Green said. “To think that nobody in any way would be offended would probably mean this assignment wasn’t very good.”