WASHINGTON ― School administrators in a 93 percent white Maryland county recently asked high school teachers to take down pro-diversity posters from classrooms because they perceived them as “political” and “anti-Trump,” a school spokesperson told The Huffington Post.
Teachers at Westminster High School had put up the posters, which depicted Latina, Muslim and black women and were designed by Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the “Hope” posters featuring President Barack Obama in 2008. The women are rendered in patriotic colors, with messages like “We the people are greater than fear.” The teachers put up the posters as a “show of diversity,” said Carey Gaddis, a spokeswoman for Carroll County Public Schools.
At least one staff member complained about the posters, and the teachers were “asked to take them down because they were being perceived as anti-Trump by the administration,” Gaddis said.
After taking the posters down, the teachers were initially allowed to put them up again. But the administration did some further investigation online and determined that the posters could be seen as political. The school does not allow teachers to put up political posters in their classrooms “unless it’s part of a curriculum and they represent both sides,” Gaddis said. (The story was first reported by the Carroll County Times.)
President Donald Trump took office vowing to crack down on immigration and ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, promises that he has already tried to fulfill. His administration is also stacked with anti-immigration hard-liners, and his campaign won early support from prominent white nationalists, whom Trump has unconvincingly sought to disavow.
The art recognizes groups that may feel marginalized under the Trump administration. But it is “definitely NOT anti-Trump in nature,” said Aaron Huey, a photojournalist whose organization collaborated with Fairey on the posters.
Fairey told HuffPost in an emailed statement that the idea behind the “We the People” campaign is that, “equality, respect, and religious freedom are unassailable American values and non-partisan.” He added, “I find it very disturbing that someone could find those ideas specifically, and by extension inclusion in general, to be partisan or problematic.”
The campaign was intentionally designed not to refer to any president or political party, according to Huey. “Anyone who believes that these messages are dangerous or divisive needs to check themselves,” he said.
Carroll County’s school system has struggled to attract more diverse staff, according to a report filed with the school board last year, and only about 4 percent of its employees identify as minorities. Jim Doolan, who was board president at the time, told the Carroll County Times in 2016 that when he first came to the school system to teach more than 30 years ago, he would find Ku Klux Klan invitations on his car windshield.
Carroll County also has a reputation as a place where people of color don’t want to be after work hours, Superintendent Stephen Guthrie told the Times. Staff members said they were trying to change that perception.
Westminster High School’s mission includes preaching “tolerance [and] acceptance of diversity,” said Steven Johnson, the county’s assistant superintendent for instruction.
The principal is looking into alternative images that people can display, Johnson said. But he likened the issue to the controversy over the Confederate battle flag.
“The Confederate flag in and of itself has no image of slavery or hatred or oppression, but it’s symbolic of that,” Johnson told HuffPost. “These posters have absolutely no mention of Trump or any other political issue ― it’s the symbolism of what they were representing. They were carried in these protests.”
Hamial Waince, a 17-year-old student at Westminster High and president of a women’s math and science club, said she has faced discrimination around town as a Pakistani-American Muslim. But she considers her high school a safe place where people are willing to stand up for her.
“Since the posters were taken down, what does that tell the students?” Waince asked. “That it’s perfectly fine to remove something which supports a moral value that each human being should have?”
Sarah Wack, a 2012 graduate of Westminster High, has started an online fundraiser to print free T-shirts displaying the images for students to wear. Once the shirt order is finalized, Wack says, the balance will be donated to the Amplifier Foundation, the nonprofit that put out the posters.
The students plan to wear the shirts on March 1. (Gaddis said they will be permitted to do so.) As of Tuesday, Wack’s fundraiser had raised over $5,000.
“I’m wearing the shirt to school to stand by those affected by the posters being taken down,” said Delaney McKelvie, a high school senior. “I also hope to get the message across that promoting diversity should be commonplace.”
Ethan Grandinetti, a 17-year-old senior at Winters Mill High School in Carroll County, defended the administrators’ actions in an email to HuffPost, saying he believes his community does embrace diversity.
“Students are welcomed to think freely and the administration acts bipartisanly to do whatever they can to prevent teachers from influencing students’ political opinions,” Grandinetti wrote. He added, “If you are ever in Maryland, I encourage you to come to Carroll County, as we welcome all with open arms.”
The school board has scheduled a meeting about the posters, Gaddis said.
Madi Macera, a junior, said she knows two students ― one black and one of Muslim faith, both of them girls ― who were “upset and disturbed at the sight of teachers having to remove posters containing images of women similar to them from their walls.”
“I want people to understand that these are American people,” said Macera, who is helping to organize the demonstration at the school. “They are a staple of who America is as a whole.”
UPDATE: Feb. 22 ― Gaddis told The Huffington Post Wednesday the school board plans to meet with legal counsel Wednesday to discuss the First Amendment rights of students and employees.