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Baltimore County schools to remove children’s Black Lives Matter chalk art from Hillcrest Elementary after free speech tussle

Catonsville’s Hillcrest Elementary School this week became the centerpiece of a struggle between families that said they wanted to send a message of love and solidarity with black community members and unknown people who continued to wash away the chalk art there that included the message “Black Lives Matter.”

Because of increasing and sometimes aggressive complaints over the Black Lives Matter chalk message to the school system, the elementary school announced Thursday that the art, written by students and other area children, will be removed by the school system’s facilities crews “to ensure our students, families, and staff remain safe with our expressions of activism and unity,” Principal Jennifer Lynch wrote in a letter on the school’s Facebook page.

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But the parents of children who chalked the messages are undeterred and say the conversation the controversy has sparked within the Catonsville community is a first step in what they hope to achieve through tangible actions pushing for equity.

“While the messages have been powerful, it is time for us to shift the messaging away from our school building,” Lynch wrote.

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With schools closed throughout the coronavirus pandemic, students had taken to drawing chalk art on the exterior of the school and its sidewalks in March, writing messages supporting teachers they missed and essential workers.

Over the weekend, a student-written message that said “Black Lives Matter” was added to the array of other supportive messages, according to a Facebook post by Lynch.

The message generated complaints to the school system, and a man confirmed to be an off-duty police officer confronted Lynch and parents like Angela Rao McLean, a Catonsville resident who said on Monday evening that the officer, who is not a member of the Baltimore County Police Department, told her the “Black Lives Matter” art was unacceptable, and he returned multiple times to mop it off.

The school’s custodial staff was initially told to remove the chalk after complaints. But when Catonsville residents learned of the removal, they persisted in reviving the messages throughout the week.

Michelle Durberry, a Relay resident, learned about the incident on Facebook.

“It upset me,” she said, adding that as a social justice advocate, her 9- and 12-year-old children are familiar with political and social rights perspectives.

“It was like this natural instinctual thing the children did from their hearts — and it’s just chalk,” she said.

Chalk art by students at Hillcrest Elementary School Thursday, June 18.
Chalk art by students at Hillcrest Elementary School Thursday, June 18. (Mel Tansill/HANDOUT)

A June 16 video of a man that has since been removed from social media showed him removing the chalk art as children wrote messages supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and sentiments of “Love is love,” which has come to be associated with the LGBTQ community.

An online memo to residents apparently signed by Capt. Brandon Rogers, commander of the Pikesville Police Precinct, which does not include the Catonsville area, said that police were directed by Baltimore County Public Schools to allow the defacement of school property, including vandalism, under the auspices of “free speech.”

Rogers, who did not answer calls to confirm he wrote the message, then wrote a follow-up statement that was posted on Baltimore County’s website at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“In order to correct an earlier memo that was distributed through several outlets I would like to make it clear that the Baltimore County Police Department will continue to patrol all of the schools in our jurisdiction,” Rogers wrote. “In accordance with the School Board’s direction we will allow for the peaceful expression of the students’ first amendment rights.”

Brandon Oland, Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman, said the school system did not direct police to allow vandalism on school property.

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“What happened in Catonsville [was that] folks were putting positive messages out there to show support for their community,” Oland said, but “we don’t want folks writing on school buildings.”

There’s a difference, Oland added, “between positive messages … and, to us, vandalism and hate speech.”

“It’s pretty disingenuous to say the graffiti itself, the chalking is the problem,” said Monica Simonsen, a Catonsville resident whose children have attended Hillcrest. “The school’s been covered in messages for months, and as soon as ‘Black Lives Matter’ was written there,” that’s when the complaints started, she said.

School officials removed writing that said “ACAB,” which has come to be used by those calling for police reform or defunding to mean “All cops are bastards.”

“While this has started a conversation, there’s a lot of hard work to go ahead,” said Rao McLean, whose children attended Hillcrest.

Oland said the school system is exploring alternative ways that students can “positively show how they’re feeling” without writing on school buildings.

“That’s something that’s gonna be discussed countywide,” he said.

Hillcrest, in collaboration with its Parent Teacher Association and a local artist, intends to create a mural inside the school with students’ artwork that is encouraged to show “messages of love, peace, and equity,” Lynch wrote on Facebook.

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