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CCSD Issues Another Response to Oglethorpe Elementary Controversy

CCSD acting superintendent Brannon Gaskins. Credit: CCSD

The Clarke County School District released a more strongly worded statement Tuesday condemning the removal of a fifth-grader’s pro-LGBTQ artwork from a classroom and subsequent comparison to a Nazi symbol, but acting superintendent Brannon Gaskins said he will not publicly discipline Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School administrators.

Meanwhile, a lawyer representing the student’s parents and teacher delivered a letter to the district office with a list of demands, including the termination of principal Bipul Singh and vice principal Sandra Scott.

Jeffrey A. Jackson said he and his clients are not planning on filing a free-speech lawsuit because it could take 15 years to go all the way to the Supreme Court, and by that time the student will have graduated from college. But they intend to put pressure on CCSD to negotiate.

“We want to work with the school board to find a solution where we can solve this in a positive way, a peaceful way,” Jackson said.

Jackson spent about an hour at the district’s central office Tuesday afternoon trying to get in to see Gaskins, but was told he was not in the building. Eventually, Jackson was able to make an appointment for Wednesday with Gaskins and CCSD’s attorney, Michael Pruett. Gaskins, CCSD’s chief academic officer, is serving as acting superintendent while Xernona Thomas is on medical leave.

Jackson dismissed CCSD’s latest statement as “a bureaucratic response” that “doesn’t really say anything.” He said he will release a tape on Friday of the teacher’s meeting with Singh unless CCSD meets at least two of their demands.

Gaskins’ full letter from Tuesday is below:

I want to provide an update regarding an incident involving a student’s artwork and the subsequent reaction from our community. The following is a synopsis of the series of events: 

● A parent raised a concern regarding a student’s artwork displayed in a classroom. This concern was not based on a lack of support for the subject matter but rather on its potential to become a source of bullying of her child. 

● Recognizing the challenges of navigating age-appropriate conversations in an elementary classroom, district administrators advised the school to have the teacher relocate the artwork in the classroom. 

● While discussing the situation with the teacher and explaining the rationale for moving the artwork, a school staff member made a reference to Nazi symbolism. 

We wholeheartedly condemn this reference and apologize for the harm these events have caused the student, the Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary community, CCSD, and the entire Athens community, specifically members and allies of our LGBTQIA+ community. 

We provided the staff member with the opportunity to explain the situation and context and encouraged reflection on their choice of words and the subsequent impact on members of our community. 

Unfortunately, this situation has led some to conclude that our district does not value inclusivity and diversity. We absolutely and unequivocally support our LGBTQIA+ community and prohibit discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. We recognize and embrace the diverse identities of our staff and students. We remain committed to providing a welcoming environment and positive school culture for students, families, and employees. 

We disagree with the suggestion that the staff member should be subject to a visible disciplinary action. We acknowledge this situation could have been handled with more care, thought, and attention. While CCSD welcomes constructive criticism and will always strive to improve, we respectfully request our community refrain from making personal attacks on individuals. 

This week, I will meet with the faculty of Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary and community partners to acknowledge the pain this has caused our district and the Athens-Clarke County community. Our goal is to help us better understand our mistakes and ultimately grow from the experience. Our commitment is to do better. 

The Clarke County Board of Education has scheduled a called meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday to “develop actions and processes to ensure equity is interwoven/integrated into all aspects of district operations.” The meeting will be held at CCSD’s new headquarters at 595 Prince Ave., formerly Piedmont College. As is typical of called school board meetings, the public will not be allowed to make comments.

Meanwhile, the National Coalition Against Censorship, which consists of more than 50 education, artistic, labor, civil liberties and religious groups, also released a statement objecting to CCSD’s actions. It reads in part:

Whether administrators removed the artwork because they disagreed with the particular social views expressed or because they disapprove of any student expression of political or social views, this silencing of student expression is inconsistent with freedom of expression principles and violates the public school’s First Amendment obligations. NCAC has written to the Board of Education to urge the district to return the artwork to public display, apologize to the student and take steps to ensure that similar acts of art censorship do not occur in the future.