Students’ Black Lives Matter Posters Were Thrown Out by California School, ACLU Says

A California school district is under criticism after a teacher from one of its elementary schools allegedly threw out students’ projects about the Black Lives Matter movement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claims.

In aletter sent to the San Juan Unified School District on Friday, the ACLU states that a teacher from Del Paso Manor Elementary School in Sacramento, California, singled out four students who created posters in support of the Black Lives Matter movement for an assignment given by a parent volunteer at the school.

Facts about the incident

  • The letter from the ACLU states that the parent volunteer, who has been identified by the letter as Ms. Kincaid, signed up to be an art docent at the school to conduct ““discussions that open. . . children’s eyes to the wonderful world of art.” She encouraged students on September 16 to create posters for her lesson plan “Art can manifest in activism- can manifest in our communities and school.”

  • Kincaid asked students to create posters on topics about something they wanted to see changed at school,The New York Times reported. These topics ranged from immigration, housing rights, animal rights and Black Lives Matter, according to the letter. The lesson plan allegedly bothered Mr. Madden, a teacher at the elementary school, according to the letter, which did not list his first name.

  • When Kincaid asked Madden if she could do another art docent project on diversity in his class, Madden, according to the ACLU letter, told Kincaid in front of the class that his lesson plans “would contain lessons with ‘a bunch of old white guys’ so her content may not fit.”

  • On September 17, Madden contacted Kincaid to say that he had disciplined four students who created Black Lives Matter posters. The letter states that Madden also forced one of the students to re-do their poster.

  • When Kincaid confronted Madden, he offered to return one of the student’s original posters to the student, but then threw it out along with the other posters.

  • The principal of the elementary school “backed Mr. Madden by irrationally stating that Black Lives Matter lessons are political statements and therefore off limits for public display,” according to the letter. On September 18, Kincaid was banned from being in the classroom and Madden had said that she had made her feel “uncomfortable.”

  • It was decided by the school in November that the artwork created by the students for Kincaid’s lesson would hang in Madden’s classroom, where they are currently located, according to the ACLU letter. There are also posters students made supporting environmentalism in the lobby of the school. There are no Black Lives Matter posters on display.

What Now

The ACLU states that the posters are protected by free speech. In the letter, the organization states that the district violated the first amendment and the California Education Code, which means that “courts have firmly decided that school districts cannot strip students of their free speech and expression rights merely because they are at a school.”

Kent Kern, the superintendent of the San Juan Unified School district and Del Paso Elementary school principal Damon Smith did not return The North Star’s request for comment.

The letter from the organization is demanding the district issue a public apology, allow Kincaid to continue to volunteer in the classroom and hang the Black Lives Matter posters alongside the other works of art during the Spring Art Night, if the students wish to remake the posters. The ACLU is also asking that the district include the movement into its curriculum and events, sensitivity training for its staff members and parent engagement training.

“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 who wrote the letter, in a statement in a news release. “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 welcome in their classrooms.”

The San Juan Unified School District did not return The North Star’s request for comment, but did issue a measured apology to KCRA 3, a local TV station.

“We sincerely apologize if this experience made any student feel such discomfort. Censoring a student's assigned work because of its content would not be acceptable. 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."

In a statement, Kincaid said schools need to do a better job of listening to their student’s experiences, especially Black and Brown students.

“The message Black Lives Matter should not be controversial. School administrators, teachers, and staff must take a hard look at the racism and implicit biases that they’ve internalized if they are to ensure all of our students succeed,” Kincaid said in a statement in a news release.

UPDATE: In a statement to The North Star, a spokesperson from the San Juan Unified School District wrote that the district is still investigating the matter.

The classroom teacher, Madden, had insisted that the posters "displayed in the classroom be specific to a change or improvement students wanted to see on the school campus, in alignment with the assignment’s purpose," according to the statement. The statement also stated that two students' posters were thrown away "not in front of the class, several weeks after the assignment had been given because they had not taken them home."

"Posters that were not specific to changes on the school campus such as immigration reform, animal cruelty and the Black Lives Matter movement were asked to be redone on a school-specific topic. According to other students’ statements and the teacher’s recollection, all students who were asked to redo posters were provided the opportunity to take their original artwork home. No posters were thrown away in front of the class," the statement read.

"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."

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.