A school mural was supposed to celebrate Black Lives. Instead, it was destroyed.

The New York Times
New YorkWritten By: Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Oct 31, 2021, 06:27 PM IST

A protest in support of Black Lives Matter movement (file photo). Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

A mural at a school building in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which may have become a symbol of respect for Black Lives Matter movement, has been destroyed 

The mural, showing a rising sun and two children of color wearing crowns, was intended to promote racial equity at a school building in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Fifth graders from PS 295 spent months designing the artwork, which was spread across the cafeteria wall that their school shares with MS 443, a middle school, with the help of Groundswell, a longtime community arts organization.

As the project came together in July, the elementary school principal, Lisa Pagano, became uncomfortable with the slogans that had been added — “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” — as well as a quote by Black gay feminist writer Audre Lorde, which read, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You.”

Pagano asked Groundswell in an email to substitute a broader message, such as “Hate has no home here,” to reflect the schools’ recognition of many different marginalized groups who make up the student body. “This will assist us in building more inclusivity for all viewers in our school and the middle school we are co-located with,” Pagano wrote.

Groundswell pushed back, and the mural went up unchanged in July.

But days later, a custodian was ordered to take the thin mural — attached with an adhesive — off the wall. It’s not clear who ordered the removal, which staff and parents say destroyed the mural.

The events, from the mural’s installation to its removal, have created a rift among teachers, parents and school administrators that has rattled the school community.

Parents who are upset that the mural was put up in the first place have squared off against parents who supported it. Pro-mural parents and students have protested by writing the mural’s messages in chalk on the sidewalk. At least one elementary school staff member, upset about the removal, left the school.

The Department of Education is now investigating, and both principals could face disciplinary action, a spokesperson said.

“Our schools must be safe and inclusive environments, and this should not have happened, and we’re very sorry this happened to our students,” said Nathaniel Styer, the deputy press secretary for the department. “We are assisting the school communities to come to a resolution, convening mediations and will take disciplinary action as appropriate following the outcome of the investigation.”

The discord reflects a wider debate roiling schools across the country over race and how it manifests itself in curriculum and school life. Interviews with dozens of parents at both schools, as well as former and current teachers, paint a picture of two schools grappling with the complexities of race, ethnicity, inequality and diversity.

PS 295, also known as the Studio School of Arts and Culture, and MS 443, known as New Voices, are on the southern edge of Park Slope, a largely white neighborhood, not far from the heavily Latino and Asian neighborhood of Sunset Park, and share common spaces, including the cafeteria. Pagano, formerly the assistant principal, was promoted to principal of the elementary school a year ago, while Frank Giordano has been the principal of the middle school for nearly two decades.

In the two schools, the largest contingent of students is Hispanic, with a sizable number of white students; Asian students make up 9% of the elementary school and 13% of the middle school; Black students account for less than 10% of the student body. Overall, half of all students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Although the group of muralists included children of Latino, Asian and Black heritage, some school leaders and parents said the mural did not capture the racial, religious and ethnic dynamics of the school.

Some parents did not believe their children were represented by the children depicted in the mural.

“What happened to the Hispanics, to the Asians?” Karen Rafael, who is Latina and the mother of an eighth grader, asked.

She questioned why images of front-line workers during the pandemic, many of whom are Hispanic, were not featured on the mural. The transgender slogan may also not resonate as widely with Hispanic and Arab families, she added, many of whom come from religiously conservative backgrounds.

Her daughter, she said, told her recently: “Hispanics are the middle child of the races — usually forgotten.”

Some students involved in creating the mural are upset and confused by its removal.

“I was really, really sad and angry to hear that the mural was taken down and destroyed,” one of the muralists, Kai Gelber-Higgins, 11, said. “I still don’t fully understand why it was taken down and destroyed.”

Hollis Albaeck, 11, another muralist, said: “I feel like people of color need more respect because they are just as important as white folks, but our country is not showing that, so now we need to bring back their trust in us as being kind people.”

The schools are within District 15, which spearheaded a diversity and equity initiative that involved making admissions lottery-based and is seen as a template for the rest of the city.

Some parents and teachers questioned whether Pagano and Giordano, who are both white, are culturally equipped to manage the evolving culture of a majority nonwhite school. Some staff members have lauded the two school leaders as being devoted to achieving academic excellence.

Under Giordano’s leadership, New Voices has developed a reputation as one of the best schools in Brooklyn. Parents and staff described him as an affable leader who endears himself to students with practical jokes, but can be brusque. Some parents and staff find his jokes off-putting.

Pagano, Giordano and Anita Skop, superintendent of District 15, did not respond to requests for comment. But in several meetings with parents and teachers, the three administrators explained how the events unfolded.

Before the mural, there were rumblings about racial and cultural insensitivity: Several parents at the elementary school said they spent more than $1,000 of their own money to buy books by authors of color for the school library. During a “Colonial Day,” students at the elementary school were made to play roles on settler ships, something that made students of color and their parents uncomfortable.

“By the time our second child was in that school, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to put my kid in a Pilgrim dress and take on the persona of white settler colonizer,’” said Victor Quiñonez, who is of Mexican descent and whose daughter was one of the muralists.

Doug Hecklinger, a fifth grade teacher at PS 295 who came out as queer to his students a few years ago, blamed the school administrators for creating an environment that has failed to nurture cultural understanding. “It was not uniform,” Hecklinger said. “Some teachers didn’t feel comfortable using a diversity of books without more training.” He recalled a colleague complaining, “Why can’t we read normal children’s books?”

And then came the mural.

Carlos Menchaca, a Democratic council member who represents Sunset Park, Red Hook and Greenwood Heights, allocated a $20,000 grant to Groundswell for the mural, which he had done for more than a dozen other schools in the past.

Groundswell, which has completed more than 200 pieces of public art at 128 schools around the city in its 25-year history, recruited students from the elementary school to brainstorm on the content and design.

The Park Slope mural diverged from artwork at other schools. A number of Groundswell works in the district used slogans like “Resilience” and “You Are Welcome Here,” none of which referred explicitly to current events.

But the mural that would be spread across the cafeteria wall during the summer tapped into a reckoning of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer set off worldwide protests. Those demonstrations included a march in Brooklyn that drew an estimated 15,000 supporters of Black transgender people, who are disproportionately the victims of police violence. Though Pagano had urged Groundswell to broaden the mural’s message, Sarah Katz, a Groundswell official, told her in an email that the mural was inclusive in its specificity.

“We believe that naming and supporting communities most impacted by oppressive systems is essential to cultivating authentic inclusion,” Katz said in the email. Using the phrase “Black Trans Lives Matter,” as opposed to a more generalized message, “acknowledges a truth that certain communities have been historically undervalued, and seeks to center those communities to move closer to justice. It is for these reasons that our hope would be for this statement to remain unchanged.”

When Giordano saw the mural for the first time, days later, he reached out to Skop. The mural was removed.

This fall, Giordano later told parents and staff that the mural had violated Department of Education rules around shared space. It was not approved by a building committee or by the legal department. (The Department of Education is looking into the rules as part of its investigation.)

Giordano’s main concern, however, was the lack of inclusivity and what he believed was an infusion of political beliefs.

“We needed to create a mural that encompasses all of our communities, and was not political in any sense,” Giordano said in a call to parents in September.

“We’ve gotten to this point in society,” he added, where “I don’t even want to watch the news, especially with my kids, because I want them to think that the world that they’re going to be inheriting isn’t so bad.”

Skop said at a recent virtual PTA meeting that she worried that the Audre Lorde quote “was not student-generated,” and several parents also were dubious.

“Who actually did the work?” Angela Sheldon, the head of the Parents Association at New Voices, asked. “There is a political agenda here.” The quote, she added, could be hurtful to Hispanic families in the school, some of whom lack legal protections and fear deportation. “They actually need our silence for their protection,” she argued.

Lexy Ho-Tai, a Groundswell employee who guided the students twice a week for months on the project, said she introduced the Audre Lorde quote herself and was taken aback by the furor it ignited. “I was under the impression that what I was sharing was also aligned with their school values.”

Since the controversy erupted after first being reported in The New York Daily News, the Department of Education has emphasized that the entire public school system is trying to take more steps to give students a more diverse educational experience. Under what it is calling “the Universal Mosaic Curriculum,” the department has a goal “to ensure that the materials used better reflect the myriad identities contained in each school and classroom,” Styer said in a statement.

In Park Slope, Skop and Pagano have tried to find some middle ground and have apologized for removing the artwork and hurting students’ feelings.

Skop told parents she would “bring very strong people to talk with Mr. Giordano about these things.” She told them that “this isn’t going to be glossed over,” adding that the head of a “districtwide diversity initiative” would talk to them “in a way that I, as an old white lady, can’t. I am honest enough to say that I cannot speak that way because of the color of my skin.”

She also agreed to a proposal: Maybe PS 295 could be renamed the Audre Lorde School.