SACRAMENTO — Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California sent a letter to the San Juan Unified School District on behalf of a student and parent who were censored and retaliated against by school officials for expressing support of Black Lives Matter. A teacher singled out and prohibited Black Lives Matter posters that were created in an art class about activism. The letter argues that the District violated the California Education Code, as well as the California Constitution and First Amendment.
The District banned Ms. Kincaid, a parent and frequent volunteer at Del Paso Manor Elementary School, from speaking at the school after she was invited as an art docent to teach a class. Her lesson encouraged students to create art about a cause they cared about. Four students, including the ACLU’s student client, created posters in support of Black Lives Matter, which upset Mr. Madden, the classroom teacher, who confiscated the artwork. In front of their peers, he forced the students to re-do the posters, throwing the originals in the garbage. Both the school principal, and the District’s counsel backed Mr. Madden’s actions, calling the art and student’s message of support for Black lives “inappropriate.”
“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. “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.”
During the lesson, Ms. Kincaid asked students to create art expressing a change they would like to see in their school, showing examples related to immigration, housing rights, financial aid reform, pay equity, and Black Lives Matter. Mr. Madden soon became agitated, telling the students that the topics in his lessons would be limited to “a bunch of old dead white guys.” He later called the posters “irrelevant.”
When Ms. Kincaid learned that Mr. Madden had singled out the students and made them undergo embarrassing public discipline, she set up a meeting with the school principal. The principal wrongfully claimed that since Black Lives Matters posters are “political statements,” the school can legally censor them. At the same time, the school allowed posters with political, pro-environment messages to go up.
Not long after meeting with the principal, Ms. Kincaid learned that Mr. Madden banned her from teaching any further classes in retaliation for speaking with his superiors.
“Our schools must do more to listen and learn about the real experiences of their students, which includes the experiences lived by their black and brown students,” said Ms. Kincaid “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.”
The ACLU’s letter asserts that the District’s actions against Ms. Kincaid and the students were illegal and unconstitutional. The California Education Code clearly protects student’s right to express political opinions. Likewise, the California and federal constitutions both prohibit the school from engaging in viewpoint discrimination. The school also violated the First Amendment rights of Ms. Kincaid by banning her from the classroom for petitioning the principal.
Del Paso Manor Elementary’s actions are part of a pervasive pattern of anti-blackness in California schools. The ACLU has had to intervene in school districts across California, including Fresno Unified, Visalia Unified, and Alameda Unified, for creating a racially hostile climate for Black students and for students who support Black students. Black students in the state, and across the country, are consistently discriminated against and targeted by teachers and administrators, with research showing that they are 3.4 times more likely to be disciplined than white students.
To remedy the harm that the District caused, and protect against such damaging behavior in the future, the ACLU demands that the district:
- issues a public apology;
- reinstate Ms. Kincaid’s parent volunteer privileges;
- allow students to put up Black Live Matter posters;
- incorporate Black Lives Matter into their curriculum and school events, including the school’s Spring Art Night;
- provide a staff wide cultural and sensitivity training, based on input from Ms. Kincaid;
- host a parent engagement training.