UPPER MARLBORO — The Prince George’s County Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted Thursday to support Oxon Hill High School students’ free speech rights after the school took down an art display (shown above).
The vote came after uproar earlier in the week over the removal of an art display in the rotunda of the high school. The display, created by honors art students, featured a black man with his hands up and a gunshot wound on his abdomen. The man stood next to an officer reading the obituaries of victims of police brutality. The school displayed the artwork for two weeks before the school’s administration took it down on June 9, 2015.
Sherrie Johnson, a spokesperson for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGPCPS), told the Sentinel on Wednesday that the display had already been planned to come down, but Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell said at Thursday’s Board meeting he had the display taken down earlier than scheduled.
“We removed the installation a few days early in an attempt to shield our students and the Oxon Hill High School administration and staff from the reaction by those who did not fully understand the intention of the art piece,” Maxwell said.
But Maxwell also said the school system supports students’ voices.
“Simply put, Prince George’s County Public Schools does not support censorship in education, rather we want to create a place for students to express themselves in an academic environment,” he said, quoting his own email. “Please know that we encourage this type of evaluation, analysis and expression. We believe that educational discussions about social justice and current events in our world are relevant and beneficial to our students.”
Students attended the Board meeting holding signs to voice their concern, believing the school system violated their First Amendment rights. During the public comment period of the meeting, the students asked the Board for a statement of solidarity. They also initiated a Twitter campaign and an online petition which garnered more than a thousand signatures. Finally, the students also put up a new art display in the high school featuring coffins lamenting the death of their rights.
Maria Mendoza, a student, spoke of the problems she saw with the removal of the original display.
“Many of the complainers may have been offended because of a completely different perspective,” Mendoza said. “They don’t see police brutality as an underlying societal ill. Rather, they see the victims as thugs or criminals who deserve it. Many of the complainers do not have children of color or children who have friends of color and however cannot comprehend why police brutality is an issue, because for them it isn’t.”
Mendoza also supported the teachers of Oxon Hill and applauded them for opening their students’ minds. She said the high school teachers encouraged students to express themselves.
“Our educators didn’t teach us what our art expressed. America did, society did, and this suppression of our freedom of expression is continuing to teach us. Art is supposed to provoke, but if this art offends them, perhaps they should ask themselves why they are not offended by the reality behind the art instead,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza received a standing ovation from members of the Board. At the end of public comment, members also expressed their pride in the students and their presentations, praising their signs, eloquent speeches, and organization. Several students have now bought T-shirts and resorted to wearing the same art to express their unanimity.
Board member Edward Burroughs III moved to give the Oxon Hill students the statement of solidarity.
“I would like to make a motion that we give them that statement of solidarity in support of their artwork, in support of their rights, in support of what we have asked them to do, and that is to be critical thinkers and to make a difference in their community. And students I believe that you have shown that,” said Burroughs.
Despite the statement of solidarity the future of the art display remains unclear.