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Students were illegally punished for Black Lives Matter posters, ACLU says

Black Lives Matter posters
Four elementary school students who created Black Lives Matter posters were improperly forced to redo their art assignment, the American Civil Liberties Union says.
(Isela Bravo / American Civil Liberties Union)

A group of young Sacramento students was unlawfully singled out and punished for creating posters that supported the Black Lives Matter movement as part of an art class led by a parent volunteer, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Four students at Del Paso Manor Elementary School created the works after a lesson on how art is used in activist movements. They were improperly forced to redo their posters during class time, the civil liberties group said in a letter to San Juan Unified School District this week. One student’s art was thrown away.

“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,” Abre’ Conner, staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in a news release.

The school also violated the 1st Amendment rights of the parent who led the students’ art lesson in September by banning her from coming back to the classroom in retaliation for speaking to the principal about the incident, the ACLU said.

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A district official said in an emailed statement Friday that the allegations are serious and that the district is investigating. However, there are inconsistencies between the ACLU’s account, the district’s prior knowledge of the incident and what it has learned since receiving the ACLU’s letter on Thursday, said Raj Rai, the district communication coordinator.

“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,” Rai said. “Censoring a student’s assigned work because of its content would not be acceptable.”

According to the ACLU letter, a Del Paso Manor parent and frequent volunteer identified only as Ms. Kincaid taught a lesson on art and activism as part of the school’s “art docent” program on Sept. 16. She showed posters that referenced immigration, housing rights and Black Lives Matter, among other topics.

After the lesson, the students were assigned to focus on a change they wanted to see at their school. Four students created Black Lives Matters posters, including one who used paper and markers to depict people holding hands and a sign that said “Black Lives Matter.”

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The students’ teacher, David Madden, made those students redo their posters because they were “inappropriate and political” and threw one student’s art in the trash, the ACLU said.

Kincaid sought out the school’s principal, who told her that Black Lives Matter lessons are political statements and could not be displayed publicly, the ACLU said.

Publicly available documents for Del Paso Manor’s school site council reference a parent community member named Magali Kincaid. Reached by phone, Kincaid declined to talk, referring a reporter to the ACLU.

Del Paso Manor Elementary referred inquiries to the district’s communications office.

Rai’s statement said art docent volunteers are supposed to be trained and deliver district-developed lessons, which Kincaid did not do. The statement also said that the students had been assigned to produce art work specifically related to a change they wanted at the school, and those whose artwork focused on larger social issues were asked by the teacher to complete another poster the next day.

Only the art that “met the assignment’s purpose,” not the Black Lives Matter posters, was ultimately displayed in Madden’s classroom.

The ACLU has asked the district to issue a public apology, allow Kincaid to continue volunteering in the classroom, display the Black Lives Matter posters during its spring “art night,” and undertake cultural and sensitivity training for staff.


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