Westminster rally is latest push back against school decision ban on 'We The People' posters

Baltimore Sun Media Group
Diversity or political speech? Carroll County stance on posters prompts alumni rally, student T-shirt drive.

Westminster High School alumni are organizing a rally next week to protest a decision by Carroll County schools to remove posters from classrooms that officials said were political in nature.

They scheduled their Rally for Diversity for March 3 outside the county's Board of Education — the latest protest after teachers at the high school were told last week to remove "We the People" posters they had hung in classrooms.

The posters depict Latina, Muslim and African-American women in the red, white and blue motif used in 2008 election posters for then-candidate Barack Obama.

Both the Obama posters and the We the People series were designed by Shepard Fairey. Fairey told The Los Angeles Times last month that the imagery was "a pointed reference to people who have felt attacked by President-elect Donald Trump."

School officials said the posters violated policies that bar educators from taking political positions in the classroom.

Malarie Burgess, a 2004 Westminster High graduate, is helping to organize the rally.

"We think the school made a poor decision," she said.

The decision has triggered vocal opposition. A GoFundMe campaign launched by another Westminster High alumna raised more than $5,000 for T-shirts bearing the "We The People" images.

Many students say they'll wearing the shirts to school March 1. Doing so will not violate the school policy, officials said.

Sheena Patel, a senior at Westminster High, said the posters are not a message against Trump, but a statement that "diversity and multiculturalism should be embraced regardless of political party."

"In light of the recent political environment, people have been hostile and often hateful toward those of opposing viewpoints," Patel wrote in an email. "Rather than to divide, our aim is to emphasize the unity and humanity that we all share as inhabitants of this universe. The act of banning the posters sends out a xenophobic message and shows that we are ashamed of our cultural diversity."

Zainab Chaudry of the Council on American-Islamic Relations also criticized the removal of the posters, saying in a statement that "forcing teachers to remove pro-diversity posters not only chills free speech in public schools, it also sends a hostile message to the student body that their differences are not valued, appreciated or celebrated."

Superintendent Stephen Guthrie stood by the decision. At a school board meeting Wednesday, he said there are "varying opinions on the message conveyed in these posters," but said they were taken down because they carry a political message.

Guthrie also said: "Carroll County Public Schools, the superintendent, the board and staff support a climate of tolerance, unity, acceptance and inclusivity within our schools."

Carroll County has one of the state's smallest minority populations at 8.2 percent. There's a 14 percent minority student population in the system, while minority makeup of school employees is 4.1 percent, according to system data. Earlier this month, the school board discussed efforts to recruit and retain a more diverse staff.

Sarah Wack, a 2012 Westminster High graduate who lives in Washington, launched the GoFundMe campaign to buy the T-shirts after talking with current students — including her siblings — about their plans to demonstrate against the poster decision.

"This is a student movement," she said in an email. "If I were a high school student I would be right there with them."

Wack said she loves Carroll County, but the school system is "not very diverse."

"Instead of pretending that this means issues related to diversity aren't relevant to our schools, this is all the more reason to celebrate what little diversity we do have," she said.

"Schools are for learning, and there are few things more valuable than learning from others who are different than you," Wack said.

emily.chappell@carrollcountytimes.com

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