artistic controversy

Is a cop in a KKK hood artistic expression or crossing the line?

PHOTO: Denver Post via Denver 7
The student's controversial art piece has been taken down.

The controversy that led a Denver tenth-grader to request her drawing of a police officer in a KKK hood pointing a gun at a child of color be removed this week from public display has raised several thorny but perennial questions: Should students be given full artistic freedom? Or are there limits?

And if a student creates something provocative, should it be displayed?

City and school district leaders touched on those topics at a news conference Friday after a private meeting between the student, a sophomore at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy; her parents; Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; Denver Police Chief Robert White; Denver Public Schools Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova and school principal Peter Castillo.

The meeting was organized after Denver police officers raised concerns about the art, which closely resembles the painting “A Tale of Two Hoodies” created by artist Michael D’Antuono after the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. The Colorado chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association called the student’s piece “hate art.”

The student art show runs through April 14.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
The student art show runs through April 14.

According to DPS, the student subsequently requested it be removed from the downtown Wellington Webb municipal building where it was displayed. She did not appear at the news conference, and officials said she didn’t want to speak with the press.

But White said that after talking with the teenager — whom Hancock called mature, confident and articulate — he’s sure she wasn’t intimidated into making that decision. He said she expressed in the meeting that she values the police but “there’s a lot of work to be done.”

White said he wasn’t offended by the artwork but was “greatly concerned.” Following several days of student walkouts in December 2014 in protest of police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, White met with DPS students to discuss their views and how to build a healthier relationship between Denver police and the city’s youth.

“The reality of it is there are a lot of people across this country and our community who still portray police officers that way,” he said. “And it is our responsibility to mitigate that portrayal. And that can only be done by having meetings like we had today with this young lady.”

Cordova said the conversation exemplified how art can open a dialogue.

“The idea is that it’s important for our students to understand that if you put a message out into the world, the world does respond,” she said.

Hancock said city officials “don’t want to censor or douse the spirit of the arts.”

“We want to continue to encourage our young people to do their art, to exhibit their art in city buildings,” he continued. “But we as adults have to make sure that we protect them and we make sure the message is honoring to the entire community.”

The student’s piece was part of the annual DPS High School Art Exhibition, which includes paintings, drawings, sculpture and jewelry by DPS students and chosen by a jury that includes community artists. It was hung in the high-ceilinged lobby of the downtown Webb building.

This drawing, titled "Anti-Immigration," is currently on display at the Webb building.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
This drawing, titled “Anti-Immigration,” is currently on display at the Webb building.

And it was not the only boundary-pushing piece. The show, which is on display through April 14, also features a drawing entitled “Anti-Immigration” that depicts a clawed animal with a face resembling Donald Trump chasing Speedy Gonzales through the desert. Another shows a nude figure holding a sign that says “God Hates Fags.” The word “My” has been scrawled above “God” and the word “Hates” has been crossed out and replaced with “Loves.”

Yet another piece has two sides: On one, police officers in black-and-white raise their batons against protesters. On the other, which is in color, white police officers in riot gear stare stony-faced at a black man, his mouth open as if he’s yelling. Its title? “History Repeats Itself.”

DPS doesn’t have a policy restricting the art students can create. Castillo, the Kunsmiller principal, said the school draws the line at vulgarity and profanity.

“Outside of that,” he said, “we embrace most of the creative process with artists.”

In a statement, DPS noted that depictions of weapons are usually prohibited from the High School Art Exhibition. An exception was made in this case, the district said, in part because “the piece was relevant to current events and important topics for students and our society.”

Connie Stewart, a former art teacher who is now an art education professor at the University of Northern Colorado, said teachers shouldn’t be afraid to let students express what’s on their minds. In 2001, shortly after 9/11, Stewart was teaching at an elementary school. She gave the kids rolls of butcher paper, played soft flute music and let them draw.

Their artwork ran the gamut, she said. “I had images of flowers and butterflies and some images of people falling out of windows,” Stewart said. “They needed that outlet.”

But there’s a difference between allowing students to create art that’s meaningful and tolerating art created just for shock value, Stewart and other current and former art teachers said. Educators should endeavor to distinguish between the two, they said.

“You have to, as a teacher, keep things in a context of, ‘Are you using your personal voice? Is this your experience, your truth?’” said Kendra Fleischman, a visual arts teacher at the public Denver School of the Arts who previously taught in Jefferson County.

This piece, titled "History Repeats Itself," is also on display.
PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
This piece, titled “History Repeats Itself,” is also on display.

“We do see quite a bit of artwork that deals with some pretty tough issues,” she said.

Jay Seller, who taught theater in Adams County for 32 years and is now executive director of the Denver-based Think 360 Arts for Learning, which provides professional development for arts teachers, said the topic of the Kunsmiller student’s piece doesn’t surprise him.

“In the context of Black Lives Matter and current events, it only appears appropriate that that student would feel those images depict the world around her,” he said. “You would never want to deny personal expression. The old saying, ‘Art imitates life’ — that is dead on.”

However, Seller and others said teachers should think carefully and use common sense to determine if and where to display potentially touchy student art.

“They need to consider the community and how the artwork will be viewed by their particular community, and whether or not the artwork would cause more damage than constructive comments,” said Pat Franklin, president of the National Art Education Association and a veteran art teacher and administrator in Virginia public schools.

Said Seller: “Hanging the art in the Webb building where law enforcement agents are going to walk by it and see the depiction? That’s probably pushing some buttons.”

But Fleischman said she thinks it’s unfortunate the piece was removed. “That’s concerning to me because it does send a message to students that, ‘Oh yeah, we want you to protest through your art but if it offends us, we’re still going to take it down,’” she said.

Stewart, who helps train future art teachers, acknowledged that situations such as this one are complex. She said she advises her students that one way to address controversial topics is to have kids respond to the “big ideas” behind them, such as safety, comfort and respect.

“Creativity is nurtured within limits, and every teacher decides what those limits are going to be,” she said, noting that teachers should make sure lessons are age-appropriate.

But she emphasizes that they shouldn’t necessarily shy away from uncomfortable subjects, or from questions that don’t have easy answers.

“My personal opinion is you take the risk,” she said, “because it’s more important for art to mean something than for it to mean nothing.”

First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”